The storm surge was so strong that it forced open their front and back doors simultaneously, and Downs was pinned by the sofa. Carter grabbed Devin off the kitchen table and took him up to the attic, then freed Downs, who joined Devin in the attic. Carter then spent the next frantic few minutes in the water, trying to save all of their animals and get them up to the attic as well. A boat came to rescue them, and after insisting that they would only go if their animals could go too, the entire family was taken to a temporary shelter, albeit one still surrounded by water.
During the week following Katrina, the Downs–Carter family struggled to survive but with each step they took toward safety, they were forced by authorities to leave one more animal behind. They went from one temporary shelter to another. After days spent enduring the horrible conditions of the “Field from Hell,” a grassy area off the interstate where thousands of people were dumped without adequate food, water or sanitation, the only animal they had left was their smallest dog, a Shih Tzu mix named Lil Bit.
“When the buses came that Saturday [September 3, 2005] morning, I had Devon in one arm and Lil Bit in the other,” says Downs. “The bus driver said, ‘You can’t bring that dirty dog on this bus.’ My son was starting to cry. I said, ‘Please let us bring him, we’ve already lost everything, four animals, this is all we have.’ He actually looked at me and said, ‘You can always wait for the next bus,’ and he knew that wasn’t an option for us— we were all dehydrated and sunburned.”
Despite their pleading and begging, and their son’s tears, the driver would not back down. They set Lil Bit down in the grass and boarded the bus.
“We had Devin unexpectedly,” says Downs. “Prior to that we thought our animals were the only children we would ever have. We risked our own lives to save these animals, so to have [people] say, ‘Too bad, they don’t mean anything to us, you’re going to have to leave them behind,’ that was ….” Voice fading, she was unable to continue.
They eventually found refuge at Downs’ parents’ home in Memphis, Tenn. While visiting a Red Cross shelter there to fill out forms and request help, Downs first learned about Petfinder.com’s massive database for Katrina animals. Sadly, they learned that while their two large, senior dogs, Jordan and Ce-Ce, had been rescued from the location where the distraught family was forced to leave them, they were in such ill health that they were euthanized. Their two birds also did not survive.
“My heart broke every time I went online and saw how many dogs had been misplaced. These dogs belonged to old people, babies. Not everyone in New Orleans was a dog-fighter. Since Katrina [we’ve] gotten a very bad reputation, and people say these dogs were sick with heartworms or were maimed because they were fighting. Yeah, some people took very bad care of their dogs, but others did take good care of them. I did.”
With the help of Stealth Volunteers, Downs has located a dog whom she believes to be Lil Bit, but the woman in Illinois who adopted him is not being cooperative. During a phone conversation with Downs, she questioned how Downs, whose house was destroyed, could take care of him properly. When a Stealth Volunteer spoke with her, the woman suggested that the family focus on rebuilding their lives, with the knowledge that the dog is well cared for and loved.
“That’s supposed to make me feel better?” says Downs. “He is the only thing I may have left in the world from my prior life. He’s not a thing I can go buy in the mall. This is a dog we love and cared for and bonded with. My son still cries and begs for his dog. Try explaining this to a three-year-old—‘Jordan and Ce-Ce went to live with Jesus to watch over us. Mama is still trying to get Lil Bit to come home.’”