At last: National chains open in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward

NEW ORLEANS – It’s been a long time coming: National retailers are open again in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, a neighbourhood that was drowned more than 10 years ago when catastrophic floodwaters crashed in and smashed homes after inadequate floodwalls and levees burst during Hurricane Katrina.

On Thursday, Mayor Mitch Landrieu joined a ribbon cutting for a new CVS Pharmacy that opened its doors in the Lower 9th Ward earlier this month. A Family Dollar discount store also has opened in the area.

Landrieu said the arrival of CVS should spark more private investment in the neighbourhood.

“I think it’s fair to say the Lower 9th Ward is coming back and coming back strong,” Landrieu said.

Landrieu though acknowledged that the recovery has taken longer in this corner of the city than in others, but he said many improvements have been made. He pointed out a new high school and millions of dollars in new road repairs and sidewalks.

Still, residents lamented the slow pace of recovery and lacklustre return in business — whether national stores or mom-and-pops. They said the number of businesses fall short of their needs.

Overgrown and empty lots are found on every block where the worst of the flooding took place. Before Katrina, those empty lots were filled with families. The storm killed dozens of people and swamped thousands of homes with floodwaters that reached rooftops.

“They just forgot the 9th Ward,” said Mary Jones, a 76-year-old woman as she sat outside her home. “They fix everything else, but not the 9th Ward.”

She sat on her front steps and recalled corner stores every few blocks where she bought basics and food. Without a car, she said she relies on family members bringing her food now.

“When I moved down here in 1947, it’s just about like it is now,” she said, upset at overgrown empty lots she said the city was failing to keep trimmed. Back in 1947, the area was sparsely populated and more like a village on the edge of the city. “You had to walk through the (tall) grasses to get to the grocery, just like now.”

Some things are better, she said.

“There’s not much killings, shootings around here,” she said. “Before the storm, there were. You couldn’t sit outside like this before.”

In the hardest hit part of the neighbourhood only one business has opened— a multi-purpose homespun grocery store, barber shop, snowball stand and po’ boy sandwich and hot food takeout called Burnell’s Lower 9th Ward Market.

At the register, the owner’s mother, Lillie Cotlon, said the neighbourhood isn’t the same.

“There was a thriving, self-sustained neighbourhood, a close-knit neighbourhood prior to Katrina,” she said.

Back then, she said there was a funeral parlour, a pharmacy, a movie theatre, lots of bars and corner stores. “This side of Claiborne (Avenue), this is the only store,” she said with a hint of pride.

Before Katrina, the neighbourhood had about 14,000 residents, and fewer than half live there today. The city is working with developers to build about 190 new homes on lots abandoned by hurricane victims.

Outside the market, the street was torn up, as part of repaving work.

“They are working on the streets finally,” she said. But she had expected more from the rebuilding. “I expected it to look much better than it is now,” she said. “Some of the neighbours want to come home, but a lot of them didn’t have much to come home to.”