The three men were approaching high ground as they sloshed along U.S. 190 this afternoon, less than a mile from their homes near the Amite River.

Instead of paddling their aluminum canoe, they were pulling it. A chilly wind whipped at their backs, sending angry waves against their thighs as the flood waters from the Amite lapped against the doorknobs of the shops and gas stations along the highway.

Henry Roddy, one of the three, nodded toward the river, about three-quarters of a mile to the west.

"Everything down there has got to be in six feet of water," he said. Then he added cheerfully: "It's going down now."

This story was repeated across the Deep South today as residents piled belongings into trailers and boats to escape a four-day deluge that caused rivers to rise to record heights and chased thousands of people from their homes.

Throughout southeastern Louisiana, the flood waters began to subside today, but only after an unrelenting rainfall that left a patchwork of devastation.

In nearby Baton Rouge, one subdivision was up to its eaves in water. A few dozen yards away cars were hustling along a wide, cleanly washed boulevard without a drop of water on it.

Elsewhere the destruction was much more thorough. Gov. David C. Treen was plainly shocked as he jumped from a 2 1/2-ton Army truck to consult with Roddy and his two companions on their way downtown. Treen proposed going rowing for a moment, toward the Amite, but it wasn't feasible.

According to a report from the Army Corps of Engineers, it was like that through much of the Deep South, where a stalled weather front poured 10 to 16 inches of water this week before moving on. At least 11 people have died in the worst flooding in 25 years.

More than 40,000 people were evacuated from their homes; more than 100,000 buildings were damaged. Estimates of the destruction were in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Denham Springs Mayor Herbert Hoover was more concerned about hometown statistics. They suggested that this week's flooding was the worst ever for his town. The last disaster, in 1977, flooded 800 homes in this little city, an old country town that now qualifies as a suburb of Baton Rouge, 11 miles to the west.

"We figured 100 more homes were flooded this time," Hoover said.

According to the National Weather Service, in 1977 the Amite crested at Denham Springs at 41.07 feet. Around midnight Thursday it hit 41.45 feet, almost 12 feet above flood level.

More than 12 hours later, Treen still wanted to see the Amite, and so did the reporters who flew here with him in Huey helicopters supplied by the Louisiana National Guard. But after they met with Roddy and his friends, the going got rougher.

"Happy Easter--Crawfish," proclaimed an ad outside a seafood restaurant where, it was plain, nothing but crawfish were swimming about.

On the other side of the road, a silver billboard was tilting toward California. "Jesus Cares," it read. "Call 767-1111."

A few yards more, and the caravan turned around, very cautiously. On the way back it met Tim Smith, who was waiting for the opportune moment to clean up his house. In 1977, it was deluged by 14 inches of water. This time, it was 20.

"You got to get in there as soon as the water gets out," Smith advised. "Before it gets dry. You got to get in right behind it."

From here, the Hueys flew on across what used to be British West Florida to Franklinton, La., a little town near the Mississippi border, about 30 miles north of Lake Ponchartrain on the Bogue Chitto River.

"It's the worst I've ever seen here," said Mayor Warren Greer, adding that 300 homes were evacuated.

The hurried tour ended in Kenner, La., a city near the New Orleans airport. Although it was one of the worst-hit areas in East Jefferson Parish (county), it also provided a testament to the effectiveness of the pumping stations along levees on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain.

"It's been the worst flood we've had since 1947," Kenner Mayor Aaron Broussard told reporters. "And that was before we had levees. It's been absolutely the worst flood we've had by rain ever."

Even so, homes in Kenner this afternoon were marked by soggy rugs dumped on the front lawns rather than by standing water in the houses. The canals and drainage ditches had subsided to normal levels as the sun started to poke through cloudy skies late this afternoon.

The irony is that the bad old Mississippi is the least of southern Louisiana's problems today. It hasn't flooded the area since 1927. It's the Amite, the Comite, the Tickfaw and the Pearl that have folks worrying right now.