Leo Cutter, a disaster specialist dispatched to this James River town of 1,170 after the Nov. 4 flood that was the worst in the history of the Shenandoah Valley, was prepared to find the "Agnes syndrome."

But instead of finding victims like those from the 1972 tropical storm who "came in and expected to be handed a check," Cutter and other relief workers found proud and self-sufficient mountain folk, many of whom are reluctant to ask for help. As a result, some aid has gone begging.

"You paid your taxes," Cutter, a retired state police officer who now works for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, repeatedly advised victims. " 'You are entitled.' But so many people, especially the Mennonites, won't come in. They say others are worse off."

Cutter said one woman accepted 100 gallons of fuel oil from the Red Cross, but when she learned that she was entitled to a grant, she tried to send it back.

At Lord Botetourt (pronounced Bot-ah-tot) High School, bags filled with groceries went untouched in the gym until they were moved into the relative privacy of a hallway, where shy but hungry people eventually carried them off.

Principal Bill Watson of the 640-pupil Buchanan (pronounced Buck-hanon) Elementary School sent notes home with students, telling of available aid. On Tuesday, first-grader Billy Dudley, who said his house trailer "got squished" by the flood, took home a bag of clothes contributed by his classmates.

But for the most part, instead of finding new applicants for aid, the notes produced more donations of clothing. In addition, cash contributions of $93 in bills and coins now fill a jar on the desk outside Watson's office.

In many ways, tiny Buchanan, at the foot of the Blue Ridge near Roanoke, was lucky. None of its residents was among the 22 Virginians killed in the flood that caused Gov. Charles S. Robb to declare 29 cities and counties disaster areas. Damage estimates for the state have exceeded $200 million.

Up and down Lowe Street, the Buchanan street hit hardest by the flood, the air is filled with the sounds of hammers and saws, dehumidifiers and heaters and symbols of hope.

There appeared to be little to be hopeful about after the flood -- and much of what was once on the street is gone. All that remains of one house is a back yard swing set that somehow has become intertwined with pieces of a metal roof. Twenty feet from the ground, blue curtains waft from the branch of a bare tree, and a car rests on its side near a three-story pile of debris, pushed together by bulldozers.

At Dorothy Smith's house on Lowe Street, an American flag flies from a battered front porch, while inside, where floating furniture punctured holes in the ceiling tile, the 68-year-old widow worked to keep her granddaughter's vow to go ahead with Thanksgiving dinner "even if we have to sit on the floor."

When the flood came, 13-year-old Nathan Manspile stayed at school for two days. As the roaring, muddy water spilled over the river bank across Lowe Street, his mother Shirley moved her furniture to the second floor of their three-bedroom home. When she left two hours later, the water was swirling through the front door, and by the time it crested at a record 38 feet, the water stood above the light switches on the second floor. It ripped off the back and side porches, tossed the refrigerator around like a toy, and left a stench that may be months in evaporating.

The Manspiles were busy fixing up this week. They had repainted the fireplace, scrubbed the floor and walls and arranged a new couch, obtained at the Episcopal Church relief center, and a new Lane wardrobe chest, a gift of the manufacturer.

Dwight McDilda was scrubbing the wallpaper at the circa 1851 Hotel Botetourt, and planning to reopen without outside help because "I don't believe in credit. I'll do the best I can with what I've got."

Tish Kurtz, a Red Cross volunteer from Snow Hill, Md., said she was "deeply impressed by the pride and independence of these people. I've never found so many people reluctant to ask for help."

Mayor Larry Hiner, 44, said the stresses of the flood's aftermath "could make or break a lot of people. It's working on them, mentally and physically."

Within hours of the signing of a declaration of emergency by President Reagan, FEMA set up 22 one-stop Disaster Assistance Centers in Virginia to aid victims of the flood, one of them here in the gymnasium of the elementary school. Wednesday night, when the last disaster center shut down, 6,658 people had applied for assistance. Those still in need of help can call the FEMA hotline, 1-800-468-7799.

Representatives of 14 agencies were stationed at tables placed around the gym, much like admissions counselors on college night. Among them: the Small Business Administration, which despite its name, is the agency that makes disaster loans to individuals, as well as businesses; the Internal Revenue Service, which offers tax breaks to victims; the Virginia Department of Social Services, food stamps and grants; Disaster Unemployment Aid, supplementing regular unemployment benefits; the Roanoke Valley Mental Health Association, providing counselors to help people through the trauma of having lost possessions, jobs, and, in a few instances, loved ones; the Red Cross and Salvation Army.

David Ball, from the SBA field office in Atlanta, explained to applicants that the maximum loans available, depending upon income, are $20,000 for losses of personal property; $100,000 for replacing a home, and $500,000 for damaged businesses. The interest rate is 8 percent for persons who could get a loan elsewhere, 4 percent for those who have no other credit sources, repayable up to 30 years. Requests for loans filed by the Jan. 10 deadline will be acted on within 60 days, Ball said.

"The purpose," Ball said, is to "bring you back where you were, no better, no worse."

People who live in an officially designated flood plain may be required to purchase flood insurance to get aid, and if they previously were eligible for such insurance, or dropped it, they may not be eligible, Ball said.

Among likely beneficiaries of supplemental unemployment benefits will be the 155 employes of Glad Rags, a women's clothing factory that was the town's biggest employer. On the day of the flood, owner Peter J. Ragone said he left the factory on Lowe Street at about 3:30 p.m. to check another plant in Roanoke.

When he returned three hours later, he saw a dumpster bobbing in the water; the only thing left of Glad Rags were three walls -- the fourth wall had crumbled and the contents of the building had floated away.

Ragone, who said he hasn't had time to inquire about a disaster loan, has been working with Mayor Hiner to find a site, on higher ground, on which to rebuild. In the meantime, except for 41 women temporarily working at his Marwood subsidiary in Roanoke, the other workers are without jobs.

Dorothy Smith said a "real nice government man" had determined that she and her neighbor, Ruby Talley, 72, were not eligible for loans because it was unlikely they could repay them "without undue hardship," because of their age and income, thereby making them eligible for grants.

Smith said a FEMA worker came to her house, and after suggesting she clean the mud out of electrical sockets and replace the broken windows, said she "could get $5,000."

Her son Norman, who grew up in the house on Lowe Street but now lives in Vinton, looked up from his cleanup work and said sternly, "She don't know it, but if it happens once more, she's moving."