It's Beginning to Look A Lot Like Alaska

IT was cold enough to keep a Swedish car from starting.

From Embarrass, Minn., to Eldora, Iowa, arctic lows froze engine blocks, closed schools, and frustrated Republican candidates looking for votes in empty diners. In the longest-running subzero snap ever recorded, temperatures ranged from 16 to 60 below zero across the Great Plains - not counting windchill.

As the weekend freeze was expected to ease somewhat, routine commodities from eggs to antifreeze were hard to come by. So were beds in homeless shelters. Song birds literally froze to branches. Farmers nuzzled newborn calves to keep them warm.

The freeze has taken its toll beyond the flatlands. At least 44 deaths had been blamed on the cold, snow, ice, and rain nationwide. Hundreds of thousands of Midwesterners were left without power over the weekend, as the weight of ice broke power lines.

Traditionally warm areas, from Nashville, Tenn., to Orlando, Fla., have also gotten a visit from Old Man Winter. Florida citrus farmers were bracing for a killing frost yesterday, as overnight temperatures were expected to reach 25 to 30 degrees F.

The news wasn't all bleak. Record snowstorms may have actually boosted the lagging fortunes of the ski industry in the Rocky Mountain states, which has had a slow-starting season thus far. The snow was less welcome back East, as plows took to the streets once again in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.

In Washington, where city officials received a flurry of complaints after the Jan. 7 blizzard, Mayor Marion Barry asked President Clinton to help shovel this time.

"The nation's capital," he wrote in a letter to the White House, "cannot be allowed to halt again because of snow. Frankly, this city does not have the financial resources to remove snow" from residential neighborhoods.

In Rhode Island, the cold snap prompted some young people to draw attention to the plight of the homeless.

A group of 24 high school and college students in South Kensington, R.I., took turns staying in a makeshift plywood shelter on the front lawn of the Peace Dale Congregational Church over the weekend, as temperatures there dipped to 5 degrees.

"Spending four hours in some sort of discomfort really gives you a slight picture of what they [the homeless] have to go through," said Kelly Sauer, a nursing student at the University of Rhode Island.

Yet amid all the teeth-chattering, there was fun to be had. Here in Des Moines, residents put up an 18-hole astro-turf putting course through the city skywalk so they could work on their short game while browsing through Laura Ashley and Hallmark stores.

Elsewhere, in a dry-land version of the Polar Bears - those hearty humans who put on Speedos and impersonate Soviet ice breakers just to make the local news - a band of cyclers endured the 20th annual BRR ride, a 23-mile pedal through the cornfields from Perry to Ridley.

Such sports require a special form of training. As cyclist Lawrence Cooper told the Des Moines Register yesterday, "We started watching the religion channel about a week" before the ride.

The freeze even stirred up some interstate rivalry. One motorist from Minnesota, who refused to give his name to protect the honor of his fellow North Star Staters, took a hit when he called for a Des Moines towing service to jump-start his frozen car.

"The woman laughed at me," the motorist says. "She said, 'Wait, you're from Minnesota and your car won't start here, in Iowa?'"

But even Iowans have their limits. The Milton Bradley toy company helped organize a giant game of Twister in the city's convention hall. They hoped to break a 1987 record, when roughly 4,200 Bay Staters tied themselves in knots at the University of Massachusetts. Few showed up.

Apparently, when someone says "Twister" out here on the plains, it's no time for games.

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