Water shortages along Venezuela's storm-devastated northern coast have reached crisis levels, and military-led relief operations have been hampered by confusion and damage to roads in last week's drenching rains, aid workers and government officials said today.

The situation appeared to be most acute in the state of Vargas, where throngs of people roamed the dusty streets of its chaotic capital, La Guaira, in a futile search for potable water and food. Flooding destroyed many of the water systems supplying towns and villages in the area.

"There is no water. We are facing a real crisis in Vargas," Defense Minister Raul Salazar said in an interview. "The situation of the displaced in Venezuela is similar to what it has been like in places like Bosnia," he said, referring to the magnitude of the flooding and mudslides that left an estimated 140,000 people homeless.

Authorities have said the death toll from Venezuela's worst natural calamity in modern history may never be fully known, but they have estimated from 5,000 to 30,000 people lost their lives. Thousands are believed to have been buried alive under flows of mud and rock, while others are thought to have been swept away by raging rivers.

Some relief from the drinking water scarcity appeared to be in sight as two U.S. Air Force C-5 Galaxy planes arrived carrying four machines that can purify water from the ocean and contaminated rivers. Officials said the devices can cleanse more than 3,100 gallons of fresh water an hour, and sea water at a slower rate.

"They are responding to the number one necessity of Venezuela during this crisis, which is potable water," said U.S. Ambassador John Maisto. "This is the best technology we have."

But bureaucratic logjams, which have plagued the Venezuelan military's relief operations, delayed for most of the day deployment of one of the machines, designated for use at a power plant in Tocoa north of Caracas, the capital. The plant, which provides a large amount of the electricity to Caracas and Venezuela's northern Caribbean coast, needs fresh water to operate and for the hundreds of employees.

"This thing is just sitting around because of bureaucracy. It is very frustrating," said one U.S. official this morning at the main airport on the outskirts of Caracas. He had been trying for more than four hours to obtain clearance from the Venezuelan military to have the equipment transported.

Salazar said military vessels hauling 400 tons of fresh water were on the way to coastal areas and that he hoped the water shortages would ease within 48 hours.

The armed forces were praised for their energetic efforts to rescue stranded survivors right after the rains struck. But since they shifted to delivering supplies and searching for bodies, aid organizations and community leaders have complained that the effort is in disarray.

Sections of the northern coast have yet to receive badly needed water, food, clothing and other provisions, much of it donated by the United States and other countries.

International efforts increased today as the European Union approved another $3 million in aid. Spain offered a $100 million interest-free loan, while the Inter-American Development Bank granted a $200 million loan.

France said it was sending 30 tons of food, medicine and other supplies, in addition to technicians who will build five water purification stations.

President Clinton authorized the Defense Department to earmark $20 million in aid. That will supplement assistance already being provided by the Pentagon and $3 million from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

But the relief process was moving slowly. "The effort lacks direction. There is no plan, no one clear idea of how best to distribute the goods," said the Bishop of La Guaira, Francisco de Guruceaga. "There is a lack of organization and a lack of experience with a crisis of this magnitude."

Said Miguel Villaroel, adviser to the president of the Venezuelan Red Cross, "The Venezuelan military right now is disorganized. Different generals are issuing different orders involving the distribution of relief and the use of helicopters."

Military officials said they are doing the best they can with limited numbers of aircraft and other resources, supplemented by nine Black Hawk helicopters and other equipment supplied by the United States. Many Venezuelan military helicopters--24 of which are being used in the Vargas operations--have been making more than 60 runs a day, placing heavy demands on fatigued crews.

Armed forces officials said supplies delivered by military helicopters are often hoarded by swarming residents, leaving many people with no provisions.

Authorities said some roads running north from La Guaira to the nearby town of Los Corales have been partly cleared of heaping mounds of mud, rock and other debris. Workers used plow trucks and dynamite to clear passage. But overall, the lack of ground access to many communities has stymied relief operations.

"Water and roads are the priorities," Salazar said.

Private individuals are also contributing to the effort. But five civilian helicopters have crashed, killing a total of eight people. A military helicopter also crashed, leaving one soldier dead.

The influx of foreign assistance has overwhelmed the military's ability to distribute the supplies.

"The amount of aid from friendly countries has at times saturated our ability to deliver it," said Gen. Raul Baduell of the army's 42nd paratroop brigade.