In New Orleans' Hardest-Hit Neighborhood, A Recovery — By Sheer Will Nine years after Hurricane Katrina, the area still had no grocery store. So, using his savings, Burnell Cotlon opened one himself. "If there's a problem," he says, "somebody's got to make a move."
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In New Orleans' Hardest-Hit Neighborhood, A Recovery — By Sheer Will

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In New Orleans' Hardest-Hit Neighborhood, A Recovery — By Sheer Will

In New Orleans' Hardest-Hit Neighborhood, A Recovery — By Sheer Will

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It is time for StoryCorps. And today, as we look back on 10 years since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, we hear a story from the Lower Ninth Ward, the part of town that was hit the hardest and the slowest to recover. Nine years after the storm, it still didn't have a single grocery store.

But Lower Ninth Ward resident Burnell Cotlon wanted to change that. He saved money while working at fast food restaurants and dollar stores. He used it to buy a dilapidated building on an empty block. And in 2014, he opened a neighborhood grocery store. Cotlon recently sat down for StoryCorps with his mother, Lillie, to remember the days after the flood.

BURNELL COTLON: I remember coming back home. That was the first time I cried.

LILLIE COTLON: We lost everything.

B. COTLON: I was in that FEMA trailer for almost three years. And I drove around the Ninth Ward. We didn't have no stores, no barbershops, no laundry room.

L. COTLON: There's no way for people to go buy a loaf of bread.

B. COTLON: Right, you have to catch three buses to get to a store. And I always was taught if there's a problem, somebody got to make a move. So I decided to open up a grocery store. I remember when I first bought the building, everybody thought that I was crazy.

L. COTLON: When I peeked in the door before you started working, I said, this is nothing but junk. I mean, it was trash and debris on the floor that you had to crawl over. And - how can he make anything out of this? But you were one of my very interesting sons...

B. COTLON: (Laughter).

L. COTLON: ...Always jumped into things you had no business doing.

B. COTLON: It was hard. It was real, real hard. And those eight-hour days turned into 14, 15 hours a day. But what motivated me the most was seeing the people that was walking by with their groceries and seeing them get off the bus with all of those bags. That made me work harder. We finally did the ribbon-cutting ceremony, and that day, I will never forget.

You served the very first snowball.

And the first customer cried because she said she never thought the Lower Ninth Ward was coming back.

L. COTLON: You saw something that I didn't see. I'm glad you took the chance.

B. COTLON: Just seeing so many people and the look on their faces is a joy. It was a headache back then, but now it's...

L. COTLON: It's all worth it.

B. COTLON: ...It was all worth it. And if it takes me doing it by myself, I'm going to put one business at a time back into that Lower Ninth Ward 'cause it's home.

GREENE: Burnell Cotlon with his mother, Lillie, at StoryCorps in New Orleans. This conversation will be archived in the Library of Congress. The podcast is on iTunes and at npr.org.

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