The coronavirus pandemic poses a grave threat to the New Orleans neighborhood still reeling from Hurricane Katrina, but Burnell Cotlon is determined to help.

By Meghan Overdeep
August 31, 2020
Advertisement

Since 2014, Army veteran Burnell Cotlon has been operating the only grocery store in the Lower Ninth Ward.

For a nearly a decade after the New Orleans neighborhood was decimated by Hurricane Katrina, the closest grocery store was the Walmart in Chalmette. Before Cotlon opened Burnell's Lower 9th Ward Market on the corner of Caffin Avenue and North Galvez Street, residents had to take three city busses to purchase fresh groceries.

“Before Hurricane Katrina we had over 15,000 people here in the Lower Ninth Ward. We had stores, we had houses, and Hurricane Katrina unfortunately wiped everything off,” Cotlon, who lived in a FEMA trailed for three years following Katrina, told Good Morning America. “This is the only store. This is it. There’s nothing else around. That’s why it’s so important for me not to quit.”

The coronavirus pandemic has made his humble market even more essential to the poverty-stricken neighborhood. Cotlon is now offering store credit to customers who lost their jobs amid the COVID-19 crisis, which he describes as “Katrina ten times over.”

Burnell's Lower 9th Ward Market doesn’t sell alcohol, but it does sell milk, produce, healthy foods, face masks, and other pandemic essentials. Customers can even do their laundry there.

“Life in this neighborhood is an underlying condition: hard jobs, long hours, bad pay, no health insurance, no money, bad diet. That’s every day. They have disabilities. They have high blood pressure, breathing problems, diabetes. Before I opened, this part of the city was a food desert,” Cotlon told The Washington Post. “If you’re hungry, are you spending that dollar on an onion, or on nachos with chili cheese? We were made more vulnerable to this virus down here because of what we’ve had to deal with. Wearing a mask won’t protect us from our history.”

Word of Cotlon’s life-saving work is spreading. A GoFundMe page set up in his name has raked in nearly $400,000. The funds will help him in countless ways, including in his latest effort to support his long-suffering community: affordable housing.  

“It makes me feel good,” Cotlon told GMA of serving his community. “I have spent my entire life savings doing this but I’m not complaining. I would do this again in a heartbeat because it feels good knowing that my hard work, my efforts, can affect so many lives. I sleep very good at night. I have no regrets.”