Winter roared back into the Washington area last night all the politeness and diplomacy of a polar bear. There was a clear message in the sudden return of frigid winds and numbing temperatures here: winter is still here and yesterday's sweet, spring-like weather was nothing more than a momentary flirtation with a season not yet arrived.

The sudden cold snap, accompanied by winds gusting to near 50 m.p.h., whipped into Washington about 6 p.m., sending temperatures plummeting in a short time to near freezing.

Between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m., the temperature at National Airport dropped 24 degrees -- from 65 to 41. By midnight it had tumbled to 28 degrees, an unusually sharp drop of 37 degrees in just six hours.

Yesterday's high of 66 degrees, which occurred at 5 p.m., was well above the average of 40 for this time of year, but still lower than the Feb. 11 record high of 76 degrees recorded in 1932.

Yesterday's warm afternoon temperatures followed a steady rainfall that left .61 inches of precipitation at National Airport, the second highest one-day accumulation so far this year. The rainfall was welcomed by area water authority officials, who have been concerned about falling levels in reservoirs.

Today's forecast is for high temperatures between 35 and 40 with clear skies and no rain.