Breanne McGhee was looking forward to a local high school football game when Hurricane Katrina changed her plans.
Then 15 and junior in high school, she was disappointed when the game was canceled, but not especially concerned.
“In New Orleans, nobody leaves the city,” she said. “We have hurricane parties.”
Her home was in a part of town that had never flooded, but when evacuation orders started coming in, she and her sister headed for their father’s home north of the city.
Breanne packed light — two outfits and a pair of flip-flops. She thought she was going for a weekend at Dad’s.
It would be a month before she spoke to her mother again — even learned she survived — and weeks before she returned to her decimated home.
“I lost everything, but look where I am now. Never give up on your dreams.”
Ten years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast, McGhee looks back at the experience as a defining moment.
It taught her to live in the moment. To appreciate what she has. To value people.
It taught her her own strength.
“Everything’s gone. So you work on the things you can never lose: No one can take away your education. No one can take away your compassion for other people,” she said.
“That’s something I learned from the hurricane: You’ve got to be strong and keep pushing yourself. I lost everything, but look where I am now. Never give up on your dreams.”
McGhee and the family members she was with headed out of the state. A two-hour drive took nine hours as they finally found a single room at a Motel 6. Later, they moved on to Baton Rouge, La., where she would end up finishing school as Salutatorian at McKinley Senior High School.
McGhee remembers going to sleep at the Motel 6 on a fairly normal night. The storm was making landfall, and the news showed debris flying around, but that wasn’t unusual for a hurricane.
When she woke the next morning, 80 percent of New Orleans was under water.
“My mom, my grandma, all my family were still in the city,” she said. “It was very apocalyptic. We couldn’t get in contact with anyone.”
She remembers watching the news, wondering if her family was in the Superdome, standing on the edge of a bridge, or dead. She started to lose hope of their survival after their names didn’t appear on the daily lists of survivors in surrounding area shelters.
“How was I supposed to go to school when I didn’t know if my family were even alive?” McGhee said.
When they were later reunited, after a month, she learned the rest of her family’s harrowing stories, like how her 78-year-old grandmother and uncles escaped by floating down the street using a single tire as a raft until a boat picked them up.
Returning to the city was another nightmare.
“It looked like somebody had picked up a Monopoly board with all the pieces and then just violently shook it,” she said. “Cars were on top of houses, houses on top of cars. The smell was unbelievable. And it was quiet. Too quiet. You didn’t see anybody. Streets that were once filled with laugher and neighbors were now filled with silence and the aftermath of a disaster.”
What lingers most for McGhee, though, is the kindness of other people.
“How was I supposed to go to school when I didn’t know if my family were even alive?”
In Baton Rouge, her principal drove all the kids from New Orleans to get new clothes at the local American Red Cross.
“He didn’t just hand us a piece of paper so we could go on our own. He drove us himself and said, ‘We’re gonna go get you clothes today so don’t worry,’” she recalled. “It was an overwhelming feeling.”
The band teacher ensured she had a trumpet to continue her musical study, and parents chipped in to buy band outfits for the newcomers to the school.
Volunteers came to New Orleans and rebuilt her home — and one group of Jewish volunteers from Chicago not only painted the house but became friends.
“I didn’t feel like a charity case,” she said. “I felt loved.”
McGhee did go home — she completed her undergraduate degree at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans and only left to go on to optometry school. There were programs closer to home, but the family feeling at Pacific drew her in.
“I love it up here at Pacific,” she said. “Seeing the family-centeredness, the closeness, how students and faculty interact, I knew this was the place for me, because it reminded me of home.”
Optometry school is hard — and McGhee has done it with an extra challenge. She’s had two children during her four years at Pacific with the support of her husband, family, and optometry “family”— students and faculty.
She pushes herself hard to excel in her classes and clinics, because it is a way to show appreciation to all of the people who helped her get to where she is today.
“When I was down and lost everything I had, others came to my aid so that I could have clothes, school supplies, and a home. I dedicate everything to them. When I graduate in May, I wish they could read off all of their names, because I would not be where I am today if wasn’t for them,” she said.
“I want to be a role model to my children and to others,” she said. And, she wants to give back some of the support she’s received.
“When I was down and lost everything I had, others came to my aid so that I could have clothes, school supplies, and a home … I would not be where I am today if wasn’t for them.”
McGhee is completing the doctor of optometry program in tandem with a master’s of education in visual function in learning. She’s interested in working with at-risk youth to identify vision-related issues that may be interfering with their educational success, ultimately helping them stay on track, in school and out of trouble.
She is in the process of starting a nonprofit, with the help of her education advisor, designed to mentor minority youth and help spread awareness in healthcare deprived communities.
And, after graduating in May, she hopes to complete a residency to continue building her optometry skills before returning to New Orleans to live and practice.
“That’s home,” she said. “Besides, I have to get some gumbo!
“And if another hurricane hits, we’ll rebuild again — though this time I’ll probably take all the pictures and some more clothes.
“When challenges arise, don’t get defeated, but keep moving forward.”