Icy winds whipped up drifts of newly fallen snow across the Plains and Great Lakes yesterday, turning rain-soaked roads into ribbons of ice. At least 18 deaths -- 14 of those traffic fatalities -- were blamed on the weather.

Heavy rains in the nation's midsection raised the level of the Mississippi River and the spirits of barge operators, who had been forced to lighten loads to navigate the waterway because the river was at its lowest point since recordkeeping began more than a century ago.

But the National Weather Service cautioned that the river's four-foot rise depended on continued rain.

Unseasonable rains pounded parts of Maine, Vermont and New York City as well, stranding motorists on slush-clogged rural roads and forcing numerous school closings, but weather experts said the moisture was not enough to help the drought situation.

"It's some help, but it's not the solution," said John Cunningham, a New York spokesman, who urged residents to continue conserving water. "People shouldn't be fooled. We're short 400 billion gallons."

Six people died on icy roads in Nebraska, four in Iowa, three in Pennsylvania and one in Utah. Three fire deaths in frigid North Carolina Sunday were blamed on faulty fireplaces and space heaters.

The storm left a blanket of snow over Colorado's mountain and prairie areas, adding a welcoming layer of snow to ski resorts but also creating treacherous driving conditions. Steamboat Springs reported about 15 inches.

Blowing snow was whipped from Iowa to the Great Lakes, bitter cold temperatures iced the Plains from the Texas Panhandle northward, and howling winds in Iowa caused drifting snow and kept roadways treacherous. In Nebraska, winds gusting up to 20 to 40 mph also caused considerable drifting.

Most roads in Michigan were snow-covered and slippery and visability was reduced because of blowing snow.

Six workers were injured in Quincy, Mass., when gusty winds toppled a cement wall at a construction site at the Quincy Adams Boat Yard yacht club.