At 4 a.m. yesterday Cleveland was bathing in a relatively mild 43-degree rain. Two hours later, as the Midwest's most devastating blizzard of the century struck, the temperature was down to 8 and the wind was a shrieking 85 miles an hour.

The 1,000-mile-wide killer storm that brought heavy flooding through the South to Florida, deep, blinding snow to the Midwest, tornadoes to the mid-Atlantic states and a downpour over the northeast was technically called an "extra-tropical cyclone." But a National Weather Service meteorologist here offered a more graphic description.

"Picture the storm as a giant toilet bowl," he said. "Somebody flushes and everything swirls around counter-clockwise and rushes down the hole."

The hole, he said, was over Cleveland yesterday.

"I've never seen winds like the ones that are blowing out there right now," said Cleveland police Sgt. John Stys. The barometer in Cleveland plunged to the lowest reading - 28.28 - ever recorded in the city's history.

Ohio Gov. Janes A. Rhodes called up the National Guard for study for the third time this winter. Rhodes expressed fear for elderly persons who might be trapped by the storm without food or heat and said the blizzard was "the most comprehensive emergency we've ever had."

Other midwestern cities reported being at a standstill as the storm roared through. The Red Cross opened scores of emergency shelters in 12 states hit by the winter weather blitz while police said by midafternoon the number of storm related deaths had reached 24.

Wisconsin authorities said they were being swamped with distress calls from motorists stranded in their cars in deep drifts. But state officials there said they lacked the manpower to get through the blizzard to rescue many of the stalled drivers.

Dodge County, Wis., traffic chief Vic Gherke issued this grim warning: "If you get out, even for an emergency, you're on your own. You can expect no halp."

Airports, schools, businesses and virtually all highways through the Midwest were closed. In Detroit officials advised stranded airport patrons that there was not enough chairs and benches to go around and some passengers would have to spend the night in grounded planes.

Some of those caught by the storm managed to muster up a bit of humor. "This is one of those winters my dad and granddad talked about as the good old days," said Paul Shaw, heading back to his hotel in snowbound Indianapolis.

Others were near-casualties. An Indiana man, stranded for five hours in his exhaust-filled auto on a lonely highway, scrawled a goodbye note to his wife that read: "Frances, I will love 'til the day I die" and set off through waist-high drifts for help. He made it with the note crumpled in his pocket.

A Chicago man who managed to end up on a Lake Michigan ice floe with his new wife after a lakeside stroll during the storm told police who pulled them to shore, "I was a romantic fool."

National Weather Service experts have said the strom was a combination of a cold front spawned in the Dakotas and a broad, southern low pressure system. "They collided and just kept growing," said a weather service forcaster. He predicted the winds would continue to blow through today and be followed by snow.

In the East, the storm brought high winds and more than 10 inches of rain to some spots as it moved up the Atlantic coast. A tornado, spawned by the record low barometric readings accompanying the storm, touched down near the Quantico Marine Base in Virginia, killing a three-year-old boy.

Some of the worst flooding occurred in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. In Mingo County, W. Virginia, officials were concerned that many of the nearly 1,500 house trailers installed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development after the disastrous flooding along the Tug River last April might be washed away again.

"They put a lot of them right back in the Tug flood plain," said Jerry Hildebrand, a member of the governor's flood panel. "It's 10 degrees out and it's been flooding since last night. There's no place left for those people to go."