TO THE CAREFREE gawkers along the sides of the swollen Potomac -- those never threatened by the barreling onrushes of water and mud that destroyed lives and livings in surrounding states these last days -- the scene was all quite fascinating. Lunchtimers and sunset sightseers ignored pleadings of authorities not to jam further the traffic already detoured and clogged by road closings. But as billions of gallons blew by, a closer look would point up the horror of flood: there were dead animals, trailers, cars, furniture and countless pieces of wood. And to those who suffered the worst of this flooding -- around Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia -- the difference was knowing whose homes and friends or family members were being taken.

It is difficult for any of us to fathom this devastation -- and the limits of man's ability to cope with the cause. "I saw cattle, stiff-legged dead, floating by and then two chairs and a sofa, like a living room in a river," a man surveying his porchfront on the bank of the Shenandoah's North Fork near Maurertown, Va., told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Mr. Baker also told of fearing for his life as the river took the life of a neighbor and then rose to the ceilings of his own home's basement.

There is the gripping tragedy reported this morning by Post writer Ed Bruske in which a couple went out in a canoe to attempt a rescue of their small herd that had become stranded in a pasture. The rescue turned out to be not of the herd but of the woman, saved by a rope as she clung to tree branches in the river. Her husband disappeared. Other stories are still coming in.

Next comes the grim and costly business of bailing out, of searching for assistance to repair damage and of finding access to shelter, food and -- yes -- water, for drinking. The cost will be millions, just to repair roads, bridges and other transportation connections. There is no real way to be ready for the next time; but clearly this time, as in the past, governments will have to step in and help as only they can. And now, as before, individuals are rallying in spectacular ways to help victims. Those who weren't affected -- those sightseers and anybody else who can go home to dry shelter -- were luckier than they may know.