Shawn McNeil looks at her life in two parts: Before Katrina and after Katrina.
When Hurricane Katrina hit 10 years ago in August 2005, almost everything in her life washed away.
“This area is the most depressing place in the world,” McNeil tells PEOPLE of her native home in the Press Park area of New Orleans. “It’s just so sad.”
The 48-year-old grew up in Gordon Plaza, part of a subdivision developed by the city in 1981 on top of the Agriculture Street landfill.
As a young girl, she had no idea that her house was built on top of a landfill that had closed in 1965. The soil contained almost 50 hazardous chemical that cause cancer, according to The Times Picayune.
“We used to go into the streets and play football and stickball,” she says. “Back then, we would turn the fire hydrant on and kids from all over would come and play. The ice cream truck would come through the neighborhood. I can’t remember the last time I saw an ice cream truck.”
“Life was good before the storm,” she continues while wiping away her tears. “And then everything changed. Everyone left, most didn’t come back and people started dying. My mom and sister died from cancer.”
Her home has family photographs on the walls, a few bikes, TVs and clothing from her late mother that she never wants to throw away.
“I have the structure, but I need to fill it with love,” she says.
McNeil, who worked as a housekeeper at a nearby Motel 6, got in a car accident a couple years ago and hasn’t been able to work since.
Although she currently doesn’t have electricity or running water, she is determined to get back on her feet. She currently sleeps on a cot in her kitchen because it’s the only room in her house she can feel a cool breeze during the night.
Next to her house is Press Park, which has 237 abandoned townhouses.
“It’s a ghost town around here. It’s filled with memories of all these families and people who never came back. But yet the housing authority still cuts the grass. It makes no sense. Why cut the grass?” she says.
But in the years since the storm, McNeil says “this place is like Beverly Hills,” compared to what it was like in 2005.
“My dad wouldn’t let us look at the house for a long time,” she says. “It was so bad. He didn’t want us to see the destruction.”
Occasionally, one of McNeil’s friends comes back to town to visit.
“It keeps hope alive,” she says. “We talk about how we can’t wait for things to get back to normal, but I think I’ve realized that things will never go back to normal. It’s about acceptance, but no one wants to accept something they don’t want to accept.”
McNeil says she sometimes feels like her neighborhood and the Lower Ninth Ward should be taken off the map.
“There is nothing for me here,” she says, shaking her head.
McNeil walks out her house, bikes a couple of minutes to Press Park and sneaks underneath a fence that has “No Trespassing” signs on it.
She points to numerous homes and rubs her hand on her head. Each house is filled with every item that the owners had to leave behind when they fled New Orleans, she says.
She adds, “They were only able to take with them what they had their back. Poke your head in these homes and it will just kill you.”