Ten years ago, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, it was the city's Lower Ninth Ward that was hit the hardest.
"I remember coming back home," Lower Ninth resident Burnell Cotlon told his mother, Lillie, on a recent visit with StoryCorps. "That was the first time I cried."
"We lost everything," Lillie says.
Recovery was especially slow to come to that part of town. Burnell, a veteran and a father himself, says that for three years he had to live out of a trailer set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Residents in the area went nine years after the storm without a grocery store.
"We didn't have no stores, no barbershops, no laundry rooms," Burnell says. "You have to catch three buses to get to a store. And I always was taught if there's a problem, somebody's got to make a move."
He decided to open up that grocery store himself. Using money he'd saved up while working at fast-food restaurants and dollar stores, Burnell bought a dilapidated building on an empty block and got to work — all amid a fair bit of skepticism.
"I remember when I first bought the building, everybody thought that I was crazy."
Even his mother had her doubts.
"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?" she remembers thinking.
"But you were one of my very interesting sons, always jumping into things you had no business doing."
It wasn't easy.
"Those eight-hour days turned into 14, 15 hours a day," Burnell says. "But what motivated me the most was seeing the people that was walking by with the groceries and seeing them get off the bus with all of those bags. That made me work harder."
When the day finally arrived, when the ribbon was cut and Burnell's grocery store finally opened, he says he'll never forget the moment.
"The very first customer cried 'cause she said she never thought the Lower Ninth Ward was coming back."
"You saw something that I didn't see," Lillie tells her son. "I'm glad you took the chance."
Those long days certainly yielded a worthy reward. "Just seeing so many people, the look on their faces, it's a joy," Burnell says. "It's a headache back then but now it's worth it."
The plaza in the Lower Ninth now consists of a barbershop and a sweets shop — but there's plenty of work still to be done. And Burnell isn't resting.
"If it take me doing it by myself I'm a put one business at a time back into the Lower Ninth Ward," he says. "'Cause it's home."
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Liyna Anwar.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.
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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.