Charmaine Neville’s New Orleans Story: Horror and Heroism

By: Greg Mitchell

Every time you think you’ve heard it all about the horrors of New Orleans in the past week, something like Charmaine Neville’s experience comes around the bend, or the blog, and smacks you over the head like a club. It’s a story of dead babies in the water, alligators eating people, heroism (she commandeered a bus to save dozens) and despair (she was raped).

Yes, she is a singer and one of the famous Nevilles. Her father, Charles Neville, performs with uncles Aaron, Art and Cyril in the Neville Brothers band. The Boston Globe has declared that there are “simply no limits to her skills,” and The New York Times said she “electrifies audiences.” As a frequent visitor to New Orleans, and a JazzFest attendee, I know the Nevilles? work well. But that connection matters little when you consider her story.

It is just one more tale — although surely one of the most horrific — that everyone ought to ponder in considering exactly which officials and agencies failed in their rescue and relief responsibilities, from the top down, in a depraved disregard for life.

As far as I can tell, Charmaine’s story first appeared in print earlier this week in The Advocate of Baton Rouge. It is just starting to make the rounds of the Web (such as at Daily Kos) in an even more powerful form — a six-minute video that appeared on Baton Rouge TV station WAFB. Here, she speaks to a priest or minister, shortly after her rescue and relocation to that city, where she was reunited with her son.

To really feel her story in all its dimensions, you have to watch the tape. (It’s found here.) But her saga in a crude nutshell goes something like this:

Neville makes, or made, her home on Pauline Street in New Orleans’ poverty-stricken Ninth Ward. When the hurricane warnings came, she, like many of her neighbors, felt she did not have the resources to flee. She had no money, no car, so she barricaded herself in the house, with an elderly man, and prayed.

Barely surviving the storm, she found shelter at the school across the street from her home. In a flat-bottom boat she helped rescue nearby residents, including stranded policemen. With a crowbar, she smashed a hole in the roof so people could climb to safety. For the next day or two, she waded back and forth in waist-deep water to bring food and drinking water to the growing number of people in the school, but conditions worsened and desperation grew by the hour.

Neville and others tried to get the attention of helicopters from the school’s roof. Time after time they signaled for helicopters to help them but there weren?t nearly enough in the air. And they dropped no food or water, either. “We couldn’t understand why they couldn?t help us,? she says on the video. The National Guard, she recalls bitterly, was absent.

“When we realized they weren’t going to pick us up, we had to leave,” she told The Advocate. “So we just started walking, in water, with dead bodies, and fish this big, and alligators, filth, trash. The smell was horrible.”

On the video tape she gets more specific: There must have been hundreds of bodies in the water. Some of them were babies. The alligators were chomping on bodies. Gangs and looters descended. Old ladies and children were raped, herself included. Others were murdered.

Some of her neighbors committed suicide, she said: “Because nobody was coming to help them, they were killing themselves. Some people that just went crazy.” Helicopters would pass over and “we would do the SOS on our flashlights” but they never stopped. Thousands were still trapped in their homes — old, young, pregnant, children. Some men fired guns as choppers approached, but they “weren’t trying to hit the helicopters. They figured maybe they weren’t seeing us. Maybe if they heard this gunfire, they would stop, but that didn’t help us.”

On the video she continues, “I want people to understand is that if we had not been left down there like the animals that they were treating us like, all of those things wouldn’t have happened.”

At first, Neville thought her group could find refuge at the Superdome or the Convention Center. She escorted dozens, including “two old women in wheelchairs with no legs,” to dry ground in the French Quarter, but didn’t find any help there, either.

Finally at the French Market, Neville helped commandeer a city bus. She broke a window to get in, loaded up dozens of people, some in wheelchairs, and off they went. ?And we drove and we drove,? she says on the tape, bursting into tears, ?and millions of people were trying to get me to help them to get on the bus with them ….”

After she found shelter in a Baptist church, this Neville sister was evacuated to Baton Rouge. “There are many, many heroes that have come out this,? she told The Advocate. ?People talk about what I did. I didn’t do nothing. Everybody did something.”

Referring to getting raped, Neville said, “What he took from me was nothing, because he can’t take my spirit, he can’t take my soul. My soul is New Orleans.”

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