Nightmare ahead: cleaning the fridge

Associated Press
Published October 4, 2005

NEW ORLEANS - 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 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.

The refrigerators and their contents 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. "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."