DO GOVERNMENT relief efforts end up encouraging people to keep living in areas of recurring flood disasters? That has been the anxiety and the charge, but in fact, on close inspection, it seems as though the federal programs are sensible.

Insurance won't work well for unforeseeable disasters. That's the main reason for the federal relief program, which pays out about $1 billion annually to soften the effect of some two dozen calamities. But if these are of the rare yet somewhat predictable kind, like most floods, wouldn't it make more sense to subsidize people to live in safe places rather than give them assistance after the fact? Better yet, why not prevent anyone from moving into the danger zone unless he either waived his right to disaster relief or bought insurance?

The answer is: because neither plan would work. Few people are so hardhearted as to refuse emergency relief to a desperate family of poor planners. That leaves flood insurance. But there is none available from private companies, which is why we have the federal flood insurance program. Individuals and businesses finance the program through their premiums, but they are eligible only if their local government has enrolled in the program by adopting a series of federal land-use and building controls meant to reduce the long-run risks of substantial flood damage.

Without that community enrollment, even residents who would like to buy insurance cannot do so. Some 17,000 communities are enrolled, or 85 percent of all those with serious flood risks. There are 2 million policies for $100 billion in coverage, and average annual payments of $225 million.

Begun in 1968, the program ran for several years as a subsidized insurance program--premiums didn't cover costs--and participation was low. Starting in 1973, there were powerful incentives added by tying eligibility for various federal loan and loan guarantee programs, including mortgage assistance, to the purchase of flood insurance. Enrollment improved, and then the Carter administration began to raise premiums to make the program actuarially sound. The Reagan administration has continued that sensible course.

So those people on television, stoically rebuilding, certainly deserve the aid if they've been paying premiums. And in their rebuilding, they will be required to take extra care so damage will be less devastating next time. By contrast, the disaster assistance available for uninsured losses has few such risk-reduction strings attached for either the community or the individual. And it's not very generous, so there is an incentive for people to take insurance where they can get it.

People and local governments on land that flooded three or even 30 years ago should be prepared for the inevitable. The federal government does a good job of encouraging them to be prepared. Notwithstanding federalism, however, flood insurance should be mandatory, and other federal payments to local governments should be conditioned on adoption of flood plain control programs.