As famed New Orleans singer Charmaine Neville prepares to take the stage on opening day of the 2006 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Friday, she stands by her chilling account of rapes, alligator attacks, and stealing a city bus to rescue herself and others from the horrors of Hurricane Katrina.
On September 2, 2005, just hours after Neville says she drove out the city on a stolen city bus packed with people from her beloved city of New Orleans, the singer shocked many by showing up at the newsroom of WAFB-TV in Baton Rouge.
Visibly shaking, dirt in her hair, wearing a dirty shirt, and crying, Neville spoke with Archbishop Alfred Hughes, who happened to be in the station's newsroom at the time. Hughes heads up the Catholic Archdiocese in South Louisiana.
As a news camera rolled, Neville told Bishop Hughes she and others had just been through a living hell. "Alligators were eating people, they had all kinds of stuff in the water," Neville said. "They had babies floating in the water. We had to walk over hundreds of bodies of dead people," she said.
Minutes later, Neville told the same story during a live interview broadcast during WAFB-TV's continuous coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.
Neville, who is set to perform at Jazz Fest Friday afternoon, performed at an outdoor concert in Lafayette earlier this month. After that concert, she again spoke with WAFB 9NEWS, and said she stands by the harrowing story she told eight months earlier.
"I have had people come up to me and say, did that really happen?" Neville said, when asked that question, she often replies, "I'm glad you weren't there, but had you been there, you would know."
Neville says, while trying to head to higher ground after the levees broke, she was raped. "I'm not going to say that it has changed me, because one person hurt me, not everybody, but one person," Neville said during the interview earlier this month. "I'm not mad at him, I forgive him," the singer said. "I don't know what made him do what he did. He didn't just do it to me. He did it to other women. I know that he will be caught. And he'll get what he deserves."
Dr. Louis Cataldie, the coroner in charge of recovering the bodies of Hurricane Katrina victims, says, of the 1,296 victims recovered so far, none showed evidence of alligator bites. It is, of course, possible the people Neville says she saw eaten alive were never found. He also says, while recovering more than a thousand coffins in St. Bernard Parish, he saw several alligators, but they never attacked.
Neville says her most haunting memory of Hurricane Katrina is not the rapes and not the alligators she insists were eating humans alive near her home. She says her most haunting memory was being behind the wheel of a stolen bus, packed with people, and having to pass by others who were pleading to get onboard. "Driving that bus and seeing all those people with their arms up saying take me, take me!" "I can't get that out of my head. I'm being honest here. I could not fit any more people on the bus."
Neville is now rebuilding her home where it stood in the Bywater Neighborhood of the Ninth Ward. After performing at Jazz Fest, she plans to spend the summer performing in Europe. And, she plans to pick back up a dream she had before Katrina devastated New Orleans. A dream of opening a business called Charmaine Neville's Just Desserts, which would serve dessert such as 3-crust deep apple pie, a treasured family recipe. As far as coffee, she says, the restaurant would only serve coffees from the state she loves and cherishes: Louisiana.