Washington's winter took a sudden destructive turn yesterday as torrential rains and gale-force winds - including a tornado - raged through the area, flooding homes, shattering windows, washing out roads, felling trees, disrupting electric power and taking at least one life.

Thousands of homes and businesses were without electric power during parts of the day. Fire departments pumped out water-filled basements from Frederick to Franconia. Commuter traffic floundered on flooded roads littered with potholes and windsnapped tree branches.

Many flights at National Airport were canceled and some airlines closed down operations because of unusually high winds here and blizzards, winds and other severe weather conditions elsewhere.

The National Weather Service clocked gusts at the airport here up to 62 miles an hour. The winds were part of a generally freakish January including more than 10 inches of snow, sudden changes from severe cold to warm temperatures and a near record amount of precipitation.

A total of 7.11 inches of precipitation has been recorded so far this month, the second largest amount for any January in the 106-year record-keeping history of the weather service here. The wettest January was in 1937 when 7.83 inches were measured.

In nearby Quantico, Va., a tornado ripped through a mobile home court before dawn yesterday, killing a 3-year-old boy and injuring his brother and mother. The twister also did extensive damage to several buildings at the Quantico Marine Base.

High winds also whipped up the Chesapeake Bay, endangering small craft. Gusts up to 90 miles an hour were recorded on the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, which closed briefly at 6:30 a.m.

Flooding followed by new snow plagued much of Southwest Virginia yesterday morning. Gov. John Dalton left Richmond for a flying trip over the area to assess the damage.

The State Department of Highways and Transportation reported by late yesterday that high water and slides had blocked or partly blocked at least 20 primary and 648 secondary roads in 69 counties.

Closer to Washington, flood waters on small streams generally receded during the day. But river forecasters warned that the Potomac River, fed by melting snow and heavy downpours throughout its drainage basin in the last three days, will reach flood stage here early Saturday and may cause some minor problems.

Washington's yo-yo-like temperature, which stood at a balmy 59 degrees at 2:20 a.m. yesterday, plunged below freezing last night. Forecasters called for an end to the severe winds today but said temperature should remain frigid for most of the weekend.

Damage by wind and water in the Washington area yesterday was extensive and dramatic.

Several display windows in downtown stores were blown out. Hundreds of trees were uprotted.A two-mile stretch of Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park from Military Road to Broad Branch Road NW was under water and closed.

The National Park Service reported at least 113 trees in the National Capital Parks region were destroyed including a linden tree on the White House grounds dating back to 1890.

At 1 p.m., a large oak tree fell across fourth Street NW near D.C. Superior Court and smashed a 1972 Ford Maverick owned by D.C. Police Officer Ronald Fluck and damaged at least one other car.

"I should have gone to church on Sunday," said Fluck dispiritedly.

The National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse nearly fell over when one of four cables holding it in place snapped. A park service spokesman said the tree was leaning at a 45-degree angle before workmen righted it.

The root system of the transplanted Christmas tree may have been damaged, spokesman George Berklacy said, "and we are very concerned about its life span."

At National Airport, planes on the ground were buffeted by severe winds, and incoming passengers reported extremely turbulent flights.

Eastern Airlines, one of the airport's biggest users, canceled 10 outgoing flights and diverted one incoming flight because of heavy winds, said Eastern spokesman Ron Raines.

Eastern and some other lines maintained limited service during the day but others, including American Airlines, closed down entirely.

As the strong winds began whipping the area early yesterday, power outages were reported in widely scattered neighborhoods.

The Potomac Electric Power Co. estimated a total of 25,000 customers were affected for varying periods in the District of Columbia and suburban Maryland. The Virginia Electric & Power Co. reported almost 60,000 persons affected statewide.

Pepco spokeswoman Doris Newcomb said a rash of predawn outages hit 5,000 to 10,000 customers in Oxon Hill and south Prince George's County, as well as the Benning Road section of Northeast Washington and Harrison Street, NW.

Another series of large-scale outages came later in the morning, she said, hitting the New Carrollton, Capitol Heights and Clinton areas of suburban Maryland as well as a number of other smaller areas.

Vepco reported major outages in Richmond, Petersburg, Gloucester, Warsaw, Kilmarnock and parts of Tidewater Virginia.

Pepco said it had about 300 workmen repairing electric feeder lines broken by high winds and falling trees in the area, while Vepco reported having some 450 men working statewide.

Flooding caused by the double impact of heavy rains and melting snow tied up traffic throughout the area. Prince George's County police reported seeing motorists abandoning their cars on Rte. 50 and Rte. 1 early in the morning. Flood waters rose to the level of headlights on cars on parts of Rte. 50 near the District-Maryland line, police said.

County police also reported a large fallen tree blocking the southbound lanes of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway at Riverdale Road and another tree blocking traffic on Indian Head Highway near the Piscataway Creek Bridge.

Fire departments throughout the area responded to a deluge of calls to pump out flooded basements. Fairfax County firemen alone received 350 flooded basement calls between midnight and noon yesterday.

One of the hardest hit areas was New Carrollton. Area resident Wilbert Dietrich said many of the homes in the 8400 block of New Carrollton Parkway had two to three inches of raw sewage in their basements.

Arlington County water and sewer division chief H. T. Angell estimated his office also received 50 to 75 complaints of water backing up into basements. Most of the flooding occurred in the lower Glebe ROad area, he said.

Residents of Alexandria's floodprone Arlandria section narrowly escaped flooding when Four Mile Run crested six inches below flood stage yesterday morning and began receding. "That's as close as you want to get," said Dayton L. Cook, director of transportation and environmental services for the city.

In the Chesapeake Bay, 60-miles-an-hour winds forced cancellation of a press tour of the El Paso Consolidated, a tanker designed to carry liquefied natural gas to a new terminal at Cove Point, Md.

"The captain said the winds were too strong to stay moored at the (unloading) dock," said a spokesman for the Columbia Gas Corporation. Another spokesman said recently that the facilities had been designed to allow of floading of gas in winds up to 50 miles an hour.