Jim Lindsay, the National Park Service's chief horticulturist, leaned into the wind at the Tidal Basin yesterday afternoon, tenderly cupping the shredded remains of a Yashino cherry blossom in his hand.

"See? The petals are half gone," he shouted over the blustery gusts. "If this wind keeps up, even more'll be ripped off...

"And if it freezes tonight," he shrugged helplessly, "the ones that are left will turn brown."

That was Lindsay's prognosis on the eve of today's Cherry Blossom Festival parade. "There's nothing much we can do," he said, staring at the pink and white ornamental trees along the edge of the Tidal Basin as they thrashed in the wind and, petal by petal, lost their fullness and color.

Ironically, the trees blossomed right on schedule this week-the first time they have done so in three years-only to be stripped of much of their brillance yesterday by a fickle and unfair nature.

Winds gusting to more than 50 miles an hour ripped through the city, battering trees and shrubs and whipping the Potomac River and the Tidal Basin into a muddy froth.

The National Weather Service clocked gusts up to 53 miles per hour at National Airport yesterday afternoon and warned that temperatures were likely to plunge to the freezing mark of 32 degrees or colder by early this morning.

The slighest frost, Lindsay said, will "burn" the remaining cherry blossoms "and turn them to a brownish color ... It won't leave much for the sightseers."

There is a faint glimmer of hope in Lindsay's eye, however. Most of the City's 4,000 cherry trees are located at the Tidal Basin and adjacent East Potomac Park near the Potomac River-one of the warmest parts of the city. While frost is almost certain to hit other parts of the metropolian area, "we might just slip by without it," Lindsay said.

Freezing weather in early and mid-April is not unusual for Washington. The record low temperature for today, for example, is 29 degrees, set in 1881. The normal low for today is 43 degrees and the normal high 64.

The weather service is calling for sunny skies today with diminishing winds and temperatures in the 55- to 60-degree range.

Elsewhere in the country, high winds, extreme cold and spring snows left a trail of destruction and death, especially in the upper Midwest.

Temperatures dropped into the teens in Chicago yesterday as 60-mile-an-hour winds downed power lines and scattered shards of glass from broken windows through the streets. A 31-year-old gas company employee was killed when the wall of a burned-out building fell on him.

Wind-driven snow fell across Minnesota and the Dakotas, blinding drivers and causing multi-car accidents. In Toledo, Ohio, 50-mile-an-hour winds overturned a mobile home, snapped a gas line and started a fire that killed a 69-year-old man his 68-year-old wife. CAPTION: Picture, A couple takes a lunch-hour walk along the Tidal Basin in wind that gusted to more than 50 miles an hour. The cherry blossoms, which arrived on time for today's parade, were damaged by wind. By John McDonnell-The Washington Post