The Ethiopian famine exploded into the world's consciousness last fall when NBC News showed British footage of starving people with emaciated limbs and babies with bloated bellies. But for more than a year before that, "the Ethiopian situation" had consumed most of the time -- and money -- of the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance in the Agency for International Development.

For months, Timothy R. Knight and his assistant, Richard Endres, in the office's Africa section had been battling the Ethiopian government over food aid and other supplies and how to distribute them. Now that the famine has evoked widespread sympathy here, Knight and Endres find themselves battling a public perception -- and political criticism -- that the Reagan administration has not been doing enough.

"I've been in this office a year and a half, and since day one I've been involved in Ethiopia," said Knight, a career civil servant. " . . . I've been up with this thing every night."

To emphasize his point, Knight rattled off statistics: Since the beginning of this fiscal year, his office has provided $17 million to Ethiopia -- including $2.5 million to charter two L100 cargo planes to carry food to remote areas.

"The United States was the largest donor of emergency food aid to Ethiopia last year," he said. Then he added, with apparent exasperation, "I really wish the press would point that out."

While the Ethiopian famine has consumed his office, it is just one of many calamities -- both man-made and natural -- that taxes the resources and nerves of his small staff. Theirs is the business of disaster, and with the help of two part-time assistants, Knight and Endres must try to keep one step ahead of the four horsemen of the apocalypse in Africa and elsewhere.

In a State Department conference room, a wall-sized world map shows with pins and labels the areas of floods and typhoons, earthquakes and civil strife, from Guinea to Madagascar to Portugal. The list includes refugees, disease and drought.

When a cyclone hit Fiji, another label was added to the map and the Asia section of the office moved into gear. "We're trying to get every blanket and tent we can down there," Endres said.

In another section of the office, computers keep track of the chaos, charting the flow of U.S. assistance and the names of private organizations that help distribute it.

In the first three months of this fiscal year, the office has provided $28 million for more than 20 calamities. The eight largest recipients are Ethiopia, the Sudan, Chad, Niger, Mali, Mozambique, Kenya and Mauritania.

"The biggest common element is drought," Knight said. "Other places, you have poor farm pricing structures. A lot of these countries are already teetering on the edge, and the drought just pushes them over."

To the office, the world is divided into thirds: Asia and the Pacific; Europe and Africa; and Latin America and the Caribbean. Up until last year, Endres said, Africa and Latin America were grouped together, until the extent of Africa's problems made it, in essence, a full-time job.

The office has four stockpiles -- in Panama, Guam, Singapore and Italy -- where tents, water cans, plastic sheeting, blankets and building materials are stored. The relief operation is triggered in much the same way governors seek aid in domestic emergencies: The U.S. ambassador on the scene declares an emergency and requests aid. Assistance is then dispatched from the closest stockpile.

Knight cited an example of the office's rapid-deployment capabilities. When a cyclone hit Mozambique last year, damaging the Maputo water works, he said, "within 36 hours we had identified a guy in South Carolina who was a water engineer who spoke fluent Portuguese who had also worked on the Maputo water works. We had him in Mozambique in a matter of 36 hours."

The office is apolitical, Knight said, meaning that, at this level, politics does not influence the flow of U.S. aid. He cites socialist Mozambique and Ethiopia, as well as Ghana, as the office's biggest "success stories."

But that doesn't mean that Knight and Endres don't have opinions about the political aspects of the world in which they deal. For example, Knight calls the Ethiopian government's resettlement program "a bad idea -- it's moving people from starving in one area so they can starve in another."

Similarly, Endres, a political appointee, makes no secret of his distaste for Africa's socialist and Marxist regimes, which he sees as contributing to their food problems. "All over Africa where you have socialist governments per capita income has gone down," he said. "When a country goes socialist, they get bad weather."

Does a daily work load of famine and floods take its toll on the nerves?

"There are pesticide problems, pestilence, floods, epidemics that pop up -- we've had a couple of those," Knight said. "The nice thing about the job is that within a couple of weeks, you can start to see results. It's very rewarding work when you see an immediate payoff on something."

But "the other side of the coin," he said, "is you're always dancing on ice, ready to fall in. There's always something else."