First was the drought, and it was brutal and hot and unrelenting. Then came the rains, but they fell too fast, and soon streets were closed and basements inundated and power lines downed. Now a hurricane churns to the south.

More than usual this week -- in between the daily deluges almost worthy of Noah -- it's been impossible to figure out what to make of the weather and how to react. After nearly two months of grumbling, fretting, pining and even despairing about when sun would ever give way to rain, the only logical response should have been exultation.

And yet . . .

"I need a canoe to get out," one woman complained to Trish Hader at Aqua-Tech Waterproofing in Millersville. The business has been, yes, flooded with calls the last two days because of the torrential downpours to hit some areas, particularly in Anne Arundel County and Baltimore. A few people came home, or woke up, to discover nearly half a foot of water in their basements. "They're panicking," Hader said yesterday.

The phones also have been ringing steadily on the Outer Banks of North Carolina as Washington vacationers-to-be, their bags packed and rental fees paid, worried that a final week of summer beach fun would be blown away by Hurricane Dennis.

At Britt Real Estate in Duck, Mary York was playing down the possibility that Dennis in '99 would reprise Bonnie in '98 and force a massive coastal evacuation. "One gentleman said, `It's a long trip,' " York recounted, "and I said, `I understand.' "

The list continues: Streets under water in Poolesville and Gaithersburg. Gravel-sized hail clobbering tree limbs in Richmond. Amtrak and MARC trains canceled between Baltimore and Washington. (And farther up the road, the Sodom and Gomorrah sometimes known as New York City reduced to complete chaos by an extended and unexpected cloudburst.)

What would the prophets of ancient times say?

"We are coming up on the year 2000," laughed Stephen Cook, an Old Testament scholar at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria. "This could be some sort of sign."

If anything, the prophets would not say that the drought is over. Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) emphasized that point yesterday, declining to predict when the state's mandatory water restrictions will be lifted or substantially modified. He did, however, agree to allow new owners of sod to water their lawns between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.

"We will look at this on a day-by-day basis," he said, "and when we feel that either the trend has been reversed or that we have started to build our reserves and avoid a crisis, at that point we will make a decision as to repeal or modify the mandatory requirements."

Officially, the Washington area's precipitation deficit still exceeds 14 inches, although that's down from 18.64 inches at the start of the week. The rain also accounted for several seasonal milestones, according to the National Weather Service:

The 4.84 inches of rain that fell through Thursday makes this the wettest August since 1990.

The 3.4 inches recorded Wednesday and Thursday was more wetness than in June and July combined.

At the Little Falls recording station Thursday, the Potomac River was higher, at 3.05 feet, than it had been all summer.

Anne Sherman, of Rockville, and her 7-year-old daughter, Irina, were taking in the river yesterday afternoon from Olmsted Island at Great Falls in Maryland. While most of the massive boulders remain startlingly visible, no longer does it appear possible to walk across them to Virginia.

This week's rain, Sherman said, was rejuvenating: "It'd been so long. You almost forgot what rain was like."

A similar confession came from Judy Aines, of Silver Spring, who with husband Frank was cruising for hosta at Behnke Nurseries in Beltsville. When the skies opened up, "we were like little kids," she said. "We kept running to the door and saying, `This is good rain.' "

But good can turn into bad so quickly, and despite all our technological sophistication, there's nothing to be done. Indeed, part of our conflicted feelings about weather these days is that we know too much. Thanks to satellite monitoring, computer projections and 24-hour weather channels, almost anyone can spout intelligence about low-pressure troughs and high-pressure ridges and tropical disturbances and the effect of El Nin~o vs. La Nin~a.

Yet we're essentially powerless to affect any of it.

"It's the illusion that we have control because we have information," Bethesda psychologist Jacob Melamed said. "We're seduced into believing we can control all aspects of our environment. When the drought comes, when we're put on water restrictions, it's very sobering. It's almost an insult to our arrogance."

Staff writers Manuel Perez Rivas and Linda Wheeler contributed to this report.