Powerful frigid winds with gusts up to 46 miles an hour ripped through the Washington area yesterday, snapping tree limbs, swiping hats from heads and creating misery in general for man and beast.

The National Weather Service clocked peak gusts at 46 mph twice during the day at National Airport. This, combined with temperatures in the mid-30s, sent the wind-chill equivalent down to near zero degrees.

The winds should diminish today with partly cloudy skies and high temperatures ranging from 37 to 42 degrees, to weather service said.

There is also a chance that a few lingering snow flurries could sprinkle the area, but little or no accumulation is expected.

While the Washington area had high winds yesterday, much of the rest of the nation was hit much harder. Massive rainstorms driven by gale-force winds pounded the New England shore. Heavy rains flooded the New York City area, and new snow gripped the already storm-weary Midwest.

Yesterday's winds climaxed what has generally been a windy week here. Peak gusts of 41 and 39 miles an hour were measured on Monday and Tuesday, respectively.

Winds are generally stronger in the winter than in the warmer months of the year, according to 30-year-long weather service records, but this week's winds were well short of the Washington-area record peak gust of 56 miles an hour for January, set in 1957. The record high wind for any month was 78 miles an hour, clocked in October 1954.

Weather service observer Gody Rivera said yesterday's winds were caused by the combined force of the clockwise winds of a low pressure area centered over the Gulf states and the counter-clockwise motion of a high pressure area off the New England coast.

The edges of the two systems, like a pair of giant wheels, met over the Washington area and spun off their combined winds in a southeastward direction, creating the unusually strong gusts.

January has also been uncommonty wet. Rain or snow occurred on 15 of the first 25 days, according to the weather service, with precipitation totaling 6.25 inches so far. Normal precipitation for the entire month is 2.62 inches.