FEMA's new plan for survival in a nuclear war could make you homesick for the old one. The 1982 script was a hilarious scheme for emptying cities while the missiles were flying and decanting, for instance, the population of New York into Vermont. Some people never got over the comical instructions from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to send a change-of-address card to their local post office before embarking.

The old one was at least democratic. We would all have an equal chance of being incinerated in our cars as we sat bumber-to-bumper on a gridlocked four-lane highway.

This year's version is not only elitist, it is pro-government. Shelter is provided for state and local officials. The rest of us, with government off our backs at last, as per Ronald Reagan's dream, would be out there shifting for ourselves, "assuming greater responsibility" for our "survival protection."

How strange if Reagan, who has spent his career bashing bureaucrats, would endorse a scheme to preserve them while the rest of us -- free at last from oppressive regulation -- were out there rooting in the rubble.

In fact, the only faint whiff of Republicanism that would remind you that this is a GOP document is the assurance that the state and local officials would take land records into the shelters with them, thus reaffirming the sacredness of property values.

Presumably when the all-clear sounds, self-sufficient citizens who have managed, through self-help and voluntarism, to survive blast, fire and fallout could claim their papers and repair to craters on the old homestead until somebody from the infrastructure, venturing out of the shelter, came along to offer "government augmented volunteer components within traditional federal support of population protection."

The document denies it is designed to "single out 'elite groups.' Rather it is to ensure that the emergency management infrastructure can survive to direct critical responses and recovery operations that support the general population."

What they would be doing to support us is not detailed. What we would be doing to support ourselves is not mentioned.

If FEMA knows of anything, many people in the Soviet Union and Europe, quivering under the cloud from Chernobyl, would be ever so grateful for hints. As of now, they are told not to let their children play on the grass, to keep them indoors and not give them either cows' milk or mother's milk. Oh yes, and nobody should eat salad.

None of these suggestions would be particularly helpful in the case of a nuclear war, when there would be no grass, milk or salad to abstain from.

Scientist George Rathjens reminds us that "the radiation released at Chernobyl is minute compared to the radiation from just a few nuclear bombs." James MacKernzie, senior scientist of the Union of Concerned Scientists, says a single nuclear weapon would kill 500,000 people and instantly cause 600,000 severe injuries.

FEMA pays lip-service to all these downbeat views. It says, having been instructed by the whoops of laughter that buried its earlier blueprint for salvation, that the "U.S. would probably not survive as a political and social entity after a major nuclear exchange" and admits that "as many as half our citizens or more would be lost to the direct and indirect effects of the weapons themselves and millions more would die in the chaos of the postattack environment."

Still, this incantation is a significant advance over the early Reagan years, when T.K. Jones, the Defense Department's civil defense guru, was telling us that all we needed to do was to dig a hole, cover it with a door, pile dirt on top, climb in and await further developments.

Those heady days are gone. The freeze movement chilled the public boosting of a "survivable" nuclear war. Even the president learned to say that "a nuclear war could never be won and should never be fought."

But letting the land records in and keeping the common people out of the shelters is a key to what the Reaganites really think. They believe there will be many days after a nuclear attack.

Some people wonder why FEMA is allowed to survive. Why has it not been vaporized by Gramm-Rudman-Hollings? It wants us to return to the traditions of the '50s when schoolchildren were instructed to curl up under their desks in the event of nuclear war. That's a form of self-help and voluntarism, and in 30 years nobody has come up with anything better.

Maybe we keep FEMA around so that we have the prospect that we will die laughing -- even before a nuclear attack.