President Carter declared this mountainous northeastern corner of his home state a disaster area today, as residents struggled to cope with the aftermath of a collapsed earthen dam and resulting flash flood that killed at least 38 early Sunday morning.

Volunteers picked slowly today through acres of pretzeled cars, sherdded homes and trees torn out of the ground as they looke dfor two men who remain missing.

Neither local nor state officials would give any estimate of damage. The industrial and resort town of Toccoa remained without safe drinking water and without its main natural gas supply because of flood damage following two days of heavy rain.

Most of the dead were connected with the small Toccoae Falls College, a bible college, which owned the 40-yar-old dam and Kelley Barnes Lake behind it.

When the dam gave way without warning about 1:30 a.m. Sunday the lake waters roard down a narrow, twisting gorge toward the campus 800 feet below, sweeping up homes, house trailers and cars and scattering litt le pieces of them at random across a series of downstream pastures.

some resident came back today to pick sadly through the debris in hopes of finding some recognizable bit of their possessions. First they had to find the right pile of rubble, anywhere from several hundred feet to more than a mile from where they had lived.

College officials gave contradictory accounts today of who had last inspected the 26-foot-high, 200-foot long dam.

They had said Sunday the dam was inspected three days ago. But today they said that inspection was not of the dam itself, but of gravel newly applied to roads leading to the dam.

"I don't think they're trying to hide anything. They're still in a state of shock," said Tom Perdue, a special assistant to Gov. George Busbee.

On a 1973 listing by the Army Crops of Engineers, the dam was described as "high risk," ineaning not that it was unsafe but that extensive property damage and loss of life could result if it burst.

College officials said fresh gravel was applied to roads leading of it in the wake of heavy rains and flooding that damage those roads in June, 1976. But the officials insisted that the dam itself was no damaged then.

How they knew that was not clear. College president Kenn Opperman, when asked whether the college had a program of routine safety inspections for the dam, said, "I would not answer that at this moment."

F. R. Hansen, the college's vice president for business, said in an interview. "We did periodically walk over it. It was always a visual type of inspection . . . usually some one of our physical plan personnel . . . a supervisor." That happened "three or four times a year," he said.

Hansen said the dam had not been tested in any way in his 2 1/2 years as vice presient for business, and in 6 1/2 years of association with the college he had never been aware of any problem with the dam.

Hansen, whose department has jurisdiction over the dam, said the man immediately responsible for checking the dam during periods of heavy rain or high water was David Fledderjohann of the college fire department.

Fledderjohann was one of those killed. He was out warning residents that Tocco Creeks, which runs through the campus, was rising when the dam let go, official said.

Gov. Busbee asked President Carter for federal help today in finding out why the dam failed.

Col. Frank Walter, chief engineer for the Army's Savannah district, theorized either that water so filled the lake that it washed over the top of the dam, thus cutting a channel at that point, or that water pressure built up so much it gave way.

In Washington, United Press International reported, the chairman of a House panel investigating dam safety said today that the dam never was inspected by federal or state officials and that thousands like it around the nation may fail any time.

"These dams . . . are like loaded shotguns pointed at the people down-stream and all it takes today to trigger that shotgun is a heavy rainfall of the kind we had over the weekend in Georgia," said Rep. Leo Ryan (D-Calif.)

Ryan Forecast similar tragedies unless the government quickly begins to inspect an estimated 50,000 dams as required by a 1972 federal law that has gone largely enforced. Of the total, he said, 20,000 have been rated "hight hazards" like the one at Toccoa Falls.

Ryan's Government Operations subcommittee has been looking into the dam safety situation for 18 months.

Gubernatorial assistant Perdue said the President's prompt declaration of a disaster area for Stephens County less than 24 hours after the governor asked for it was "highly unusual."

"Generally the state has to document damage," he told a news conference. "Because Mrs. Carter was here and saw the damage, I think that had a great effect on the President." The First Lady toured the area Sunday by helicopter and car.

Most of the damage was done to a trailer park housing married students, just downstream from the main campus and right on the banks of Toccoa Creek. Opperman said the college owned about half of the trailer homes.

Rick Mitchell, 21, was one of the lucky ones.

"We were awake watching television," he said. "The power went off and on . . . I walked outside and there was a large road. It sounded like it was crushing trees and everything. Then a girl ran through Trailerville screaming for everyone to get out. I got my wife and her sister and ran with them up to higher ground. Then I went back to try to move my car.

"I still didn't know what the problem was. Then the rising water started to move the car . . . I looked up and all I could see was a wall of water coming with trailers and cars and everything in it, and I ran."

Volunteers conducted the body search quietly, wading much of the time through sticky, knee-deep mud. There was not much conversation, just a cluster of a dozen men bending over to pick apart mounds of debris, tossing aside twisted sofas, small pieces of structural boards, twisted water pipes and here and there a child's toy, a small kitchen appliance, a book of family photographs. They worked quickly, reducing each mound of debris to the levels of the mud, before moving on to the next one and leaving the rest for the bulldozers.