WASHINGTON (AP) _ A political dumping ground is one of the nicer names people have called the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But the Mississippi River floods of 1993 could change all that.

Headed by the first civil-defense professional in its 14-year history, FEMA is anticipating local needs, reacting quickly to requests and showing sympathy for flood victims. As swollen rivers continue to overrun counties across the Midwest, federal relief efforts are winning nothing but praise.

That's quite a departure for an agency known primarily for bumbling inefficiency in the face of tragedy and desperation.

After Hurricane Hugo struck South Carolina in 1989, Sen. Ernest Hollings called FEMA ''the sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses I've ever worked with.'' Disarray and delay drove the Dade County emergency management director to exclaim, days after Hurricane Andrew flattened large parts of south Florida last year: ''Where in the hell is the cavalry?''

The new administration was determined to learn from the past, Vice President Gore said this week. Both he and President Clinton are citing FEMA's flood response as evidence of success.

''I think we're getting pretty good marks this time for getting out ahead of the curve,'' Clinton said Wednesday during a visit to Des Moines, Iowa.

Local officials agree:

''I can't say enough good things about them. The communication lines and cooperation are wonderful,'' said Tammy VanOverbeke, emergency management director of Lyon County, Minn.

''They came in and set up a disaster assistance center within a week and a half of things starting to go chaotic. This is record time,'' said Petra Haws, an emergency management official in St. Charles County, Mo., which is 40 percent under water.

''They've done every single thing we've asked them to do, bar none. There is assistance we didn't even know about,'' says Des Moines Mayor John Dorrian, whose city has been without running water for five days.

The new FEMA director, James Lee Witt, was a county administrator and Arkansas emergency services director before Clinton brought him to Washington. His expertise gives FEMA a more professional air as well as a leader who has experienced the agency's strengths and weaknesses firsthand.

Richard Krim, FEMA's acting associate director for state and local programs, said Witt has begun holding a morning conference call with state emergency managers and anticipates needs rather than reacts to them.

To get ahead of the problems:

-He sent regional staffs out before the flooding became serious to help states apply for disaster assistance.

-He had his staff prepare preliminary damage assessments before Clinton made a formal disaster declaration.

-He directed FEMA workers to respond immediately to any state requests. A hospital in Des Moines, for example, received water purification equipment within 24 hours of asking for it.

-He also directed them not to wait for requests. ''We're going to the states with a list of things we think they need and saying we'll get them if you want them,'' said Krim. He said confusion and delays after Andrew occurred in part because ''we waited for the state to tell us what they needed.''

Krim, who has been with the agency since its inception, said President Bush's decision to put his transportation secretary in charge of the Andrew cleanup added an extra layer of bureaucracy and hampered FEMA's efforts.

''That's not the way to show your concern,'' Krim said. ''You put your professionals in charge, and you let them do the work.''

Witt is clearly running the flood-relief effort, backed by a strong administration presence in the region. Clinton, Gore and the secretaries of agriculture and transportation all have visited at least once. Clinton took call-in questions on a Des Moines radio show this week, and FEMA is doing daily satellite updates for Midwestern news outlets.

Even at its best, FEMA cannot ease the pain of losing a relative or finding one's home under four feet of mud. And there will always be expectations the agency cannot meet.

But few could argue with the goal Witt set when the Mississippi and its tributaries began overflowing: ''Treat the people in the region as one of us would want to be treated if we were on the receiving end of this kind of disaster.''