Washington area residents got out their heavy coats and earmuffs yesterday and tried to hold their own against a sudden onslaught of cold weather and winds that sent the wind chill factor near the zero mark and claimed the life of one homeless man in the District.

Today's temperatures are expected to be warmer, reaching into the lower 40s, but still below the normal high of 50 degrees for this time of year.

The premature arrival of winter here late Monday was mild compared with the storm that struck other parts of the nation over the weekend. The upper Midwest got as much as six inches of snow while artic air swept into the South. Western Maryland got scattered snow flurries, according to the National Weather Service.

The temperature at National Airport dipped to 28 degrees just before midnight Monday and hovered there throughout early yesterday morning, the weather service reported. The high yesterday was 39 degrees.

It was colder at Dulles Airport and in Baltimore yesterday morning, where temperatures dropped to 25 and 27 degrees respectively, and colder still for anyone who had to venture out into the biting winds.

"The wind chill factor made it feel near zero," said forecaster Scott Prosise.

An unidentified man thought to be in his 60s was found lying in a downtown park Monday morning and was taken to George Washington University Hospital, where he died of hypothermia, according to the hospital officials and the D.C. medical examiner's office.

Also Monday, according to utility companies, gusting winds caused small, scattered power outages in the region.

Winds and cold temperatures also knocked down a few trees and limbs in the District, according to a D.C. Department of Public Works spokeswoman, and put an above-normal number of traffic signals on the blink.

Area firefighters are especially mindful of the changing seasons, because cold weather is traditionally a time when the desire to keep warm can outweigh common safety sense, fire prevention officials said. Low-income tenants, living in rundown homes and apartments, are particularly vulnerable.

"Problems are compounded because of the coldness," said Capt. Richard Clark of the District's fire prevention division.

"People are confined inside more, and they try to augment their heat supply," he said.

The most common fires occur when people overload circuits with electrical heaters, use faulty equipment or operate heaters near combustible material, Clark said.

There can be trouble, Clark added, when fireplaces aren't checked before the season's first use or when people try to supplement their heat with portable kerosene heaters, which are illegal in the District.

"In some cases, people resort to using ovens, and ovens aren't designed to be left on for long periods of time," Clark said.

Freezing temperatures in the Washington region killed gardens that had thrived during a warm November and cooled off some heated Christmas shopping at a few stores.

"It's so cold that people aren't going shopping," complained a saleswoman at a Casual Corner store in L'Enfant Plaza.

A saleswoman at another downtown clothing store gave a similarly gloomy report, noting that shopping was pretty slow "except for a few who've come in to buy scarves and mufflers and hats."