Bodies were hanging from trees and floating through towns near here today when rescuers finally arrived with aid for survivors of one of the most powerful cyclones ever to strike India, a storm that may have left thousands dead.

After three days without food, shelter or clean drinking water, villagers in eastern Orissa state finally got some help when military helicopters flew overhead to drop packets of protein-rich food, and naval vessels from the Bay of Bengal forged onto what has been dry land to evacuate people marooned on roofs and hilltops.

"This is the worst flooding in 100 years; I would say it is the worst in India's history," said Asim Kumar Vaishnav, chief administrator of Baleshwar, the state capital.

With heavy rains abating, officials started to count the dead and search for those who disappeared in the cyclone, which crashed into the coast on Friday with winds of 155 mph after building up steam in the bay for five days. Meteorologists classified the storm as a "super cyclone," one of the strongest in the region this century.

India's United News agency quoted an unidentified official as estimating the death toll at 3,000 to 5,000, but the hardest-hit areas remain inaccessible, and the total number of deaths and full extent of property damage will not be known for days.

Millions of people were left homeless by the storm, which produced tidal surges that inundated 87 miles of Orissa's coast. In Bhubaneswar, 200,000 people--nearly one in every six residents--lost their homes. Entire neighborhoods were washed away, the Press Trust of India news agency said.

Human bodies and animal carcasses floated on a huge expanse of water in the port town of Paradwip, 50 miles east of Bhubaneswar, the news agency reported. About 50 miles to the north, Orissa state official P. L. Panda saw seven bodies hanging from trees during a survey of his rural district of Bhadrak.

After the cyclone--the second to batter the coast in two weeks--India's missile test site at Chandipore was turned into an army relief base, with missile scientists coordinating operations. The army put 10,000 soldiers on rescue duty, while navy and air force helicopters were pressed into service to airdrop supplies normally reserved for the military.

With the weather improving, air, rail and road links were slowly being restored to major cities, but telephone and power lines remained out of service.

CAPTION: A woman in a West Bengal village sits by the ruins of her home, which was destroyed by the cyclone.

CAPTION: Trucks hauling supplies to cyclone victims cross a flooded road in the Orissa state town of Balasore.