A punishing blizzard swept across the Midwest and East yesterday, closing highways, stranding motorists and paralyzing entire communities.

The storm sent a new mass of Artic air scurrying eastward on winds gusting up to 75 m.p.h. at Niagara Falls, N.Y.

National Guard troops and heavy-duty snow-fighting equipment were pushed into Buffalo, which was hit by a snowstorm carrying 45 m.p.h. winds. Nearly 13 feet of snow has been dumped on the Buffalo metropolitan area since Nov. 30 without a thaw.

The National Weather Service said blowing snow reduced visibility of near zero through much of the lower Great Lakes region. Blizzard and near-blizzard conditions were reported in portions of Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio, Indiana and western New York.

Hundreds of motorists were stranded in Indiana, where the blizzard moved into the northern part of the state shortly before dawn. A fleet of 23 snowmobiles owas dispatched from Rensselaer, Ind., to try to rescue about 400 people stranded in below-zero weather on Insterstate 65 north of Lafayette.

As many as 300 vehicles were reported stranded, including a bus that had run out of glas and couldn't keep its engine running to provide heat for its passengers. Roads were closed in at least 10 Indiana counties.

Temperatures dropped sharply as the ocld front moved through, bearing air that forecasters described as "direct from the North Pole." They fell to 30 below zero in North Dakota where high winds made it feel like 45 below in the morning rush hour.

Schools were closed in many major Midwestern cities, including Chicago, Indianapolis. Fort Wayne, Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati. More than half a million school children in Chicago also had a frosty holiday.

In West Virginia, Gov. Jay Rockefeller made an emergency broadcast asking all residents to look for immediate shelter.

"Don't travel anywhere, Establish a buddy system," he warned.

Western Michigan was turned into a mammoth snowdrift. Some drifts were 11 feet deep as 7 inches of snow fell in an 8-hour period at Muskegon and Grand Rapids.

Officials at the National Meteorological Center here said, however, that blizzard conditions in most areas were rather short-lived.

"It's not a major snowstorm. In most cases, they're getting just 2 to 4 inches," said meteorologist Vernon Bohl. But it still qualified as a blizzard (winds of 35 m.p.h, and drifting snow for at least three hours) in many places because of the high winds.

The deepening weather crisis has prompted governors of Florida, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia to ask President Carter to declare their states disaster areas. In Ohio, Gov. James A. Rhodes put the state national guard on alert as the blizzard arrived.

In Florida, where last week's snows fell as far south as Miami, Gov. Reubin Askew said crop damage has been estimated at $358 million and about 100,000 migrant workers have been laid off.

Growers say higher prices and lower quality for winter produce are the likely results of last week's freeze, which destroyed an estimated 35 per cent of the Florida citrus crop and 95 per cent of the winter vegetable crop.

The cold front was expected to be over the Atlantic Ocean by morning, covering the eastern two-thirds of the nation with frigid air for the weekend, at least.

The Weather Service's long-range forecast for February was disheartening, with temperatures expected to average below normal east of the Continental Divide.

The brutal cold plagued firefighters in Breckenridge, Minn., where they struggled to put out a predawn hotel fire. Twenty-two persons were believed to have died. Working in 10-below-zero weather, 10 firemen were reportedly treated for near-frostbite or exhaustion before returning to the fire line.

The wind-chill factor in Minnesota and northern Wisconsin was reported as low as 60 to 80 below zero. In St. paul, the mayor announced for the first time ever that the grand parade of the St. Paul Winter Carnival will be staged indoors today at the St. Paul Civic Center. Minnesotans promote the parade as a testament to their hardiness, but Mayor George Latimer was more worried this time about the danger of frostbite.

In Huntington, W. Va., reports of the approaching blizzard, which one radio annoucher was said to have billed in advance as "the worst of our lifetime," triggered even more excitement.

Schools, businesses and banks were closed in a rush. School children nearly bowled over their teachers on the way out the door. Police Chief Larry Nowery said motorists reacted in similar fashion, disobeying traffic signals and driving wildly.

"It's ridiculous for people to act like this," he said.