ACROSS St. Charles County, Mo., freezing rain falls from a gray sky onto the puddle-pocked earth that spreads between the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers like a soggy, leaden blanket.
Scores of homes are toppled and crumpled, their sides gutted and left gaping by river current. Houses still standing are shrouded to the shingles in a uniform brown smear left by the floodwaters.
The only color on the mired landscape are red stickers affixed to remaining clapboard - the official mark for a condemned property.
Although the fertile flood plain today seems to yield only mud and soddden debris, many victims from The Great Flood of '93 have reaped one straw of hope from their devastated properties. Under a bill signed into law by President Clinton on Dec. 3, the government will help flood victims move to higher ground by spending $105 million to purchase flood-plain property.
Nevertheless, Midwesterners who stared down a flood of biblical scale now must endure a vast backlog of paperwork.
A slough of local financial and bureaucratic troubles has hampered relief and buyout efforts and provoked angry threats from residents of St. Charles County. The same frustration and hardships thwart residents across much of the Mississippi flood plain, according to flood-relief officials.
As in many river communities, officials in St. Charles County are short of manpower and funding and have yet to complete the forms required by the federal government for the buyouts. And the county has yet to finish its damage assessment.
Months from now, when the government finally begins the buyouts on a large scale, many flood-plain refugees will probably receive far less than the value of their homes, according to flood-relief officials.
In St. Charles County, planning and zoning officials have condemned or deemed uninhabitable 64 percent of the homes in the area. Although a complete buyout program would require from $40 million to $60 million, the county has so far requested about $20 million, says Miriam Davie Anderson in the planning and zoning office. The figure is nearly one-fifth of the amount the federal government has devoted to purchases across the entire Midwest.
Many flood victims are desperate for a federal buyout and have grown hostile - even threatening - toward local officials, say flood-relief officials. Many out of homes
In St. Charles County, only 3 percent of the 3,700 families displaced by the floods have been able to return to their homes, according to Sheila Harris-Wheeler at the St. Charles Flood Relief Disaster Effort.
The remaining flood victims will probably begin the new year relying for shelter on government grants, private charity, a fraying line of credit, or the compassion of friends or relatives.
Even families who will spend the holidays around their own hearth are impatient for assistance. They deeply resent official mistakes in flood management and a sudden ``kick 'em while they're down'' campaign by officials at all levels to strictly enforce building regulations on land vulnerable to the river, according to recent interviews with several area residents.
The passage of time magnifies their concern that during the annual spring flooding just four months away, much of the county again could sink beneath a five-mile-wide inland sea.
As one of the areas most devastated by the flood, St. Charles County starkly illustrates many of the factors creating hardship and political tension in communities across the Mississippi's upper watershed:
* Unlike any other river disaster, the flood overwhelmed nearly half of the county, and high water lasted for several weeks.
* St. Charles County had spent its annual budget for emergency funding for high water last spring, weeks before the worst of the flooding;
* After years of overlooking flood-plain building codes, county officials are bending to federal pressure and aggressively enforcing laws aimed at limiting the ruin from future floods. The sudden hard enforcement has infuriated county residents.
* Officials have been especially flinty in damage assessment so as to limit abuse of the National Flood Insurance Program. County residents have filed more flood claims per capita than in any other river community in the United States. Some of them amply supplement their incomes by routinely exploiting the federal insurance program, officials say, prompting the county's sobriquet: ``Missouri Riviera.''
Despite public hostility, the planning and zoning office at St. Charles County has beem praised by federal officials. Herman Skaggs, an official with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, says he has often held up the county as a model for flood response.
After the waters receded, county inspectors methodically classed each structure according to three categories. They slapped a red condemnation sticker on homes or buildings deprived of more than half of their value. Owners were given the option of either tearing down the property or elevating it above the 100-year flood level.
The inspectors gave uninhabitable but repairable structures a white sticker; habitable dwellings, a green one.
in the view of the grass roots, however, planning and zoning is a model of bureaucratic cruelty.
Take the Shultes, a family whose ancestors have tilled county land since immigrating from Germany seven generations ago. While farming the same 141 acres near St. Peters for four generations, the Shultes have built a high dike around their corn, wheat, and soybean fields. In 1957 they built a tall mound well above the 100-year flood level for the largest of their two trim, white-washed homes. Lost crops and homes
Prior to this past summer, floodwaters had now and then wiped out some of their crops and lapped at their barns but never come close to their threshold. This year, however, the river steadily rose and filled the house with water 18 inches deep. The Shultes stayed in the house, elevating their beds on bricks and moving much of their furniture.
When the Shultes removed the front and back door to prevent warping of the wood, snakes seeking a landfall intermittently came and went. A shrieking gale on July 31 kicked up waves that jarred loose several bricks in the front of the Shulte house.
But the natural abuses were far less infuriating than the grim treatment by the department of planning and zoning, say the Shultes. Soon after the waters withdrew, a planning and zoning official insisted on shutting off the family's electricity although the submerged basement fuse box had worked fine.
Determined not to lose hundreds of dollars in refrigerated food, the Shultes refused to allow the power cutoff. ``We don't have a gun or anything, but if I had had one I probably would have used it,'' says Polly Shulte.
Not long thereafter, planning and zoning refused to allow Mrs. Shulte's 87-year-old mother to turn on the power in her trailer until she agreed to raze the old family home she abandoned after the 1986 flood.
Such policies seek to reduce the hazards and potential taxpayer losses from construction on the flood plain, says Ms. Anderson at planning and zoning.
But the Shultes, like many other residents, say officials want to clear the flood plain of as many inhabitants as possible.
``The flood disaster is bad enough, but then officials come along and just dump more hardship on us,'' says Gerald Shulte, the owner of the farm.
Gazing at the glossy glow of 20 acres sprouting with winter wheat, Mr. Shulte says: ``We want to keep a family farm, but officials are making it difficult for us.''