“Head of the Class” highlights original reporting and video from student journalists, in collaboration with NBCU Academy. The first in the series is Montclair State University’s “New Orleans: Raging Storms,” showing how climate change, racism and economic inequality have impacted the city since Hurricane Katrina.
The Lower Ninth Ward, a historically low-income, African American neighborhood in New Orleans, drew international attention after suffering catastrophic damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Before the hurricane, 14,000 people lived in the neighborhood; today, fewer than 4,000 people reside there.
After the hurricane wiped out grocery stores, residents had to catch three buses just to get to the nearest market. In response, returning resident Burnell Cotlon used his own hands and life savings to build the Lower Ninth Ward Market, the neighborhood’s only market. It now includes a barbershop, a laundry, and a place for community members to gather. On my way to profile Cotlon, I sat in the passenger seat of a van swerving down the road trying to avoid large potholes. I saw abandoned homes everywhere. In some places, I saw front stoops now standing alone on vacant lots. Other homes abandoned after Hurricane Katrina had boarded-up windows, weeds as tall as the roof, or blue tarps acting as protection. Most tarps were put up after Hurricane Ida ran through the neighborhood in August 2021, but renovations were long overdue.
The Lower Ninth is filled with people who work as chefs, musicians and store clerks in the renovated French Quarter to keep the culture and annual Mardi Gras celebration alive. More than a decade and a half after Katrina, these workers return home to a neighborhood that Cotlon describes as a third-world country.
Talking to Cotlon, I felt inspired by his passion that came from genuine concern for his community. It was comforting to know Cotlon’s vision could attract and motivate people from around the world to donate and help rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward.