Floodwaters from Hurricane Floyd began gradually receding today across a ravaged eastern North Carolina landscape of sunken homes, floating animal carcasses and devastated downtowns, revealing the daunting dimensions of a recovery effort that officials say could take months.

Reversing its course of a week ago, floodwater the color of chocolate pudding from the Tar River and other bloated streams dropped enough to reveal some neighborhoods and businesses for the first time in days. Army Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters carried relief officials aloft to conduct new surveys of the terrain, trying to determine where dive and rescue teams could do the most good in an attempt to prevent fatality figures from exceeding the 42 deaths already confirmed.

But the flood's retreat is still being measured in inches, and local officials say the standing water in many towns would have to drop another 10 feet before a cleanup of historic proportions can begin in earnest. In this sunken city, incorporated by freed slaves 114 years ago, only the pitched rooftops of modest homes and the neat lines of trees suggest the grid of streets and businesses beneath.

"We will rebuild," said Russell Bradley, who is captain of the Princeville Volunteer Fire Department and lost his home and car in the flood. "No one is going to just give this town up just like that."

As thousands of North Carolinians remain in shelters, the still-uncalculated dimensions of the flood have brought armies of insurance claims adjusters, law enforcement agents and volunteers to the region. An estimated 30,000 homes have been flooded statewide, officials say, and almost 10,000 households remain without power. Wood-burning incinerators were being used to dispose of hundreds of thousands of drowned hogs, cows, horses and other animals.

Insurance agents, utility crews and volunteers have booked up all hotel rooms within miles of the hardest-hit areas. Almost 3,700 National Guard troops have been activated, including 300 from other states. About 200 are flood victims themselves.

"They are doing a little bit of everything--search and rescue, feeding operations at shelters, security, transportation," said Sara Kempin with the N.C. Emergency Response Team in Raleigh. "A lot of the supplies, the National Guard is having to fly them in--it's the only way we can reach the people."

The troops are doing that with the help of 47 helicopters--next to boats, the only way to get around many parts of 16 of the worst-hit counties. Here in Edgecombe County, helicopter crews shuttled diapers, toilet paper and food to communities unreachable by road, including Pinetops, where officials fear a community of about 150 migrant workers has vanished.

Insurance claims adjusters have flocked here from all over the country, beginning the laborious process of assessing the damages--in places they can get to, that is.

Allstate, one of the nation's largest insurance firms, has deployed about 300 adjusters to the flood zone, and has hundreds more on standby, said company spokeswoman Marion Henry. By comparison, Allstate sent about 50 adjusters here in the wake of Hurricane Dennis, which raked the coast and then returned as a tropical storm two weeks before Floyd's arrival, providing the region's first drenching rains.

Cars and other vehicles may prove to be among the greatest casualties of the disaster: AAA-Carolina estimates that nearly 50,000 vehicles are submerged in the floodwaters, said spokeswoman Angie Ragland.

Some of the vehicles were left behind when families had to rush from their homes in boats and helicopters as the rivers rose to their doorsteps, Ragland said, or were forced to leave an extra car or truck behind. Others were abandoned along roadways when drivers realized they could not navigate through the swift flood currents.

The sixth day after the rivers rose dawned cold and blustery, but by early afternoon it was clear. Under a pale blue sky, Air Force dive and rescue crews gingerly cruised in Zodiac boats above this town's submerged residential streets. The only victims rescued yesterday were dogs--about five of them.

Coast Guard officials said it was still too dangerous for divers to enter submerged homes looking for bodies. They hold out hope, however, that anyone trapped inside when the Tar River spilled over its banks in the middle of the night last week may still be alive.

"You can never rule anything out," said Paul Schloesser of the Coast Guard, who was orchestrating the dive teams from a section of Highway 64 washed over by the Tar River. "Don't be surprised if we . . . find a few people sitting in their attics."

From a helicopter above Edgecombe County, the scope of the disaster is revealed in the enormous patches of standing water that look like mirrors, stretching for miles. School buses bob in swirling currents, trailing diesel fuel that has introduced a new hazard to smoking. The Tar River is a lake, downtown Tarboro a grand canal.

Cattle herds appear stranded on islands in the flooded streams, and everyone has their own horror stories about the hardships livestock have suffered. Locals joke grimly about how the state will soon host the world's largest barbecue when industrial incinerators arrive to dispose of carcasses.

G.W. Hoggard, whose family lost four homes here, said animals have started to turn on each other. "A friend of mine has 300 hunting dogs," said Hoggard, a spot of tobacco juice on his beard. "He turned them loose on high ground with some horses, and a few days later without food, the dogs killed one of them to eat."

Wilson reported from Princeville, N.C.; Pressley from Wilmington, N.C.

CAPTION: Princeville, N.C., the oldest black chartered town in the nation, remains under water from Hurricane Floyd.