Image: Ninth Ward resident
Lm Otero  /  AP
Tamyra Bacchus winces after opening a freezer in her home in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans on Saturday.
updated 10/3/2005 4:41:45 PM ET 2005-10-03T20:41:45

Once, before the floods, the refrigerator held savory breakfasts, midnight leftovers, cold beer. Now it’s a box of horrors in the kitchen.

Across the flood-ravaged city, refrigerators spent a month sitting silent and dark, baking in the 90-degree heat. Now, as homes and restaurants are cleaned out, tens of thousands of appliances are releasing a gag-inducing stench of rancid shrimp, sulfurous eggs, rotting fruit and putrid meat.

It is an invisible but unavoidable cloud floating in the breeze, faint on some blocks, so potent on others that passers-by have to cover their mouths. It may be most concentrated in the French Quarter, where truck-size waste containers hold the foul contents of restaurant and hotel refrigerators and freezers.

Lujene P. Kidder was determined to clean out her house, still wet from the floodwaters that rose up its walls in a working-class neighborhood called Gert Town near Xavier University. She dragged ruined furniture to the curb and salvaged treasured family photos. But her resolve failed when she turned to the kitchen.

“I’m not going to touch the refrigerator. Just put it outside,” she said, her voice muffled by a surgical mask. “Maggots,” she said with a shiver of disgust.

On some streets, closed fridges sit on curbs or lie on their sides, some taped shut so their stomach-turning smells — and worse — cannot escape. There is no regular municipal garbage pickup yet in the hard-hit neighborhoods.

“The smell of opening the freezers and refrigerator compartments doesn’t compare to anything I’ve smelled in medicine,” said Dr. Brobson Lutz, the city’s former health director and a French Quarter resident. “And that’s worse than when I worked one summer at a New York medical school and had to autopsy bodies that floated up during July and August in the East River.”

Terrible smells infiltrating the city
The refrigerators and their contents add just one more odor to New Orleans’ all-out olfactory assault.

New Orleans is a ripe-smelling town at the best of times. But Katrina coated yards, cars, houses and just about everything else with a film of dried muck that smells like low tide multiplied by 10.

Health officials have warned of dangers from the floodwaters, which contain sewage, garbage, spilled oil and other chemicals, and the possibility of corpses. The refrigerators and their contents, however, do not pose any real health dangers, Lutz said, except if someone “with a queasy stomach” were to faint and hit his head.

“The milk was the least of it,” said artist Alex Beard, whose home is in the Garden District. “I went in basically with a gas mask and a big vat of ammonia. I had maggots dripping out of my ice.”

He recommended others not follow his example. “Don’t even open it. If you have your grandmother’s ring in the freezer, leave it there,” he said. “Duct-tape up the creases and pay somebody to haul it out to the street.”

Across town in the devastated Ninth Ward, Tamyra Bacchus ventured right in. Or she tried to. She lifted the lid of a garage freezer and jumped back, driven onto her heels by the odor. She turned aside and retched, and then retched again.

Her fiance, Durel Wallace, shook his head. Thirty feet away, the rancid blast of smells made him scrunch up his face. He shook his head. He asked: “Why did she open it?”

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