A small fire intended to mask the stench of bodies was burning this afternoon in front of Norma Gonzalez's teetering house, one of the few left standing in the Marapa neighborhood of this northern coastal town.

"I guess Marapa still exists, but barely," Gonzalez, 27, said as her husband bailed buckets of muddy water from what used to be their living room. "This has been such a peaceful and close-knit place, but I do not know how we can stay with all the destruction here . . . and knowing that many people were drowned and buried alive around our house."

Drenching rains last week caused the tiny Marapa River to swell into a raging torrent that swallowed vast sections of the neighborhood, while mud and rock slides from surrounding hills buried other sections. An estimated 500 people were killed in Marapa and the adjacent community of Piache. Thousands more were left homeless in the town, which is situated on the Caribbean coast, about 35 miles northwest of Caracas.

Sporadic rain began falling in Caracas and along the coast tonight, but the weather was expected to clear tomorrow.

In countless neighborhoods across Venezuela's densely populated northern coast, survivors of last week's deadly flooding and mudslides are agonizing over how and where they will try to rebuild their lives.

President Hugo Chavez said that at least 23,000 homes were destroyed and 140,000 people left homeless. While the death toll may never be known--given that most victims are entombed in thick layers of mud, rock and other debris swept up in the floodwaters or have been washed out to sea--government officials today continued to provide a wide range of estimates.

The country's civil defense chief, Angel Rangel, told news agencies the death toll could range from 20,000 to 30,000. He said casualty figures are being determined in part from census data provided by the nine Venezuelan states, as well as Caracas, the capital, that have been declared disaster areas.

"What is for sure is there are thousands and thousands" dead, he said.

After touring the region, U.S. Marine Gen. Charles Wilhelm, head of the U.S. military's Southern Command, described the situation as "catastrophic," the Pentagon said. The Defense Department said it has sent water purification equipment and thousands of body bags to the stricken areas.

The Venezuelan military's air and sea rescue operation, which has so far brought more than 108,000 people to safety from hard-hit areas, began focusing today on recovering bodies amid concerns that diseases such as cholera and hepatitis could become a public health problem. Government officials have already reported that increasing numbers of people, most of them in overcrowded shelters, are suffering from diarrhea and other stomach ailments, as well as skin afflictions. The destruction of sewage systems increased the health risk.

"We are entering a second phase" of the emergency operation, Chavez said today, in discussing government efforts to retrieve the dead. Throughout the day, soldiers, some on horseback and others using trained search dogs, joined forensic specialists in combing Vargas state in the search for bodies.

Authorities estimate that about 2,000 people remain stranded in towns and villages in Vargas, which lies just north of Caracas. Vargas, an industrial center and popular tourist destination, suffered the most severe damage from the massive flooding and flows of mud, rock and wreckage touched off by torrential rains last Wednesday and Thursday. The mudslides wiped out hundreds of mountainside shantytowns.

Chavez also announced an ambitious plan to build new dwellings for the homeless on military facilities and other publicly owned land, as well as on property donated by individuals. Chavez added that the program would have little merit unless new jobs were also provided, something he said that the government would work to do.

He said, for instance, that Fort Guaicapuro in Miranda state would be able to accommodate about 550 new houses for people displaced by the flooding. "Let us make a town over there," Chavez said during a speech to about 800 flood victims at a shelter at the El Poliedro arena in Caracas. But, he added, "I want you to help build these houses. . . . It is not as if I am going to undertake this without you."

Chavez had planned to relocate a large segment of the population from the northern coastal region, where an estimated 70 percent of Venezuela's people live, even before it was devastated by the floods. He has an expansive social welfare initiative that includes relocation of some people from coastal communities to sparsely populated sections of the country's interior.

But the initiative would face challenges. Government officials have estimated that it will take years and billions of dollars to rebuild Venezuela from the ravages of last week--at a time when the country is mired in its deepest recession on record. Moreover, housing shortages are endemic to this poor country, where many homes are already crammed with large families. Sprawling communities of illegally built shanties checker mountainsides, most perched precariously on steep slopes.

Government officials acknowledged today they did not issue any public warnings or urge widespread evacuation in advance of the downpours, because intermittent rains that fell on Venezuela over the previous two weeks had created no safety hazards. However, some critics have contended in the public press that the government was too busy preparing for last Wednesday's referendum on a new constitution to worry about the weather.

Many people have shown a strong resolve to remain in their communities and rebuild. In the Catia La Mar neighborhood of Marapa, a community made up largely of fishermen and other laborers, Ruben Dario, a tow truck operator, stood beside his crushed home trying futilely to budge a tree that had flattened his car.

Reflecting on his future and hopes for government help, he declared: "Whether I stay here or not all depends on the kind of help the government decides to provide people like us. Just look around. . . . People like us are in no position to do anything except try to salvage what we can."

As a military helicopter landed nearby to deliver food and other supplies, scattering twisted tin roofs, stray clothing and kicking up blinding dust, Danilio Martinez, a fisherman, said: "I do not know how I can stay here. Everything we worked for is gone, except the closeness we shared. It would be probably better to shut the whole place down and start from the beginning somewhere else."

CAPTION: Vehicles were buried up to their windshields by mud in La Guaira, one the towns hit hardest by flooding across the Venezuelan coastline.

CAPTION: A rescue worker at the Caracas airport carries an infant who was evacuated by helicopter from a town inundated by flooding.

CAPTION: Workers in Caracas dig a neat line of graves for some of the thousands of victims of the country's greatest natural disaster in at least a half-century.