11/27/2013 09:26 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Amid the Ruins of Haiyan, a Kitten Connects Us


By Jennifer Hardy

Not long after I arrived in Palo on the eastern coast of the Philippine island of Leyte - a city that lay in ruins - I heard a sound coming from amid the unending rubble. It was the soft meow of a kitten.

The sound attracted a young boy. He told me had lost his six cats when Typhoon Haiya destroyed his home a few days before. Together we pulled the kitten out of her trap.

That is what life is like in Palo - the tragedy of its destruction tempered by the inevitable touches of tenderness, of humanity.

There is no escaping the destruction. I came here with colleagues from Catholic Relief Services (CRS) to help. We have joined those who lost their homes, living in an evacuation center at the Catholic cathedral here as Palo is the seat of the archdiocese.

The storm nearly destroyed the roof so many of the 250 people living here camp out along the walls where there is a bit of protection overhead from the heavy rains that arrive most days. A dozen of us from CRS have moved into the bishop's office. We have a roof, but we still set up our tents to keep the mosquitoes out.

There is a bathroom, but only one, with a single bucket for bathing. All of us - the displaced, the aid workers, the clergy - are on top of one another, all day, every day, eating bad canned food, charging our phones on the church's small generator, waking up when the sun rises as the cacophony of sound that will endure through the day begins.

The lack of privacy comes with its benefits - we get to know each other. These people seeking shelter from the storm are not numbers on a registration sheet for beneficiaries or anonymous faces lining up for a distribution of tarps or food or water. They are real people with real lives, seeking to survive a horrendous blow to their city, to their land, to their families.

We talk. And after a while there is more to talk about than powerful winds and missing roofs and destroyed homes and aid distribution. So we talk about our families. They always want to know if I have heard from my husband. We talk about their children. We even talk about their favorite celebrities. Who knew that Jennifer Lopez and Katy Perry were so popular in Palo?

We smile and chat and pass the time. Outside the children laugh and shout when I join them for a game of basketball. There is despair all around - these people have literally lost everything, they don't even have rubble to pick through. But it has not destroyed their capacity for happiness.

And that has strengthened my desire to help them, to tell their story, to let the world know that their help will be appreciated, will be rewarded, will go to wonderful, deserving people who are determined to recover from this even as they bury the bodies of loved ones in front of the cathedral..

Then I hear that soft mewing I first heard coming from the rubble. It is the kitten that we rescued, now being cared for by the children staying at the cathedral.

"What's her name?" I ask.

"Jennifer Kitten," a boy says.

"We named it after you," someone else says.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur might have a memorial in the surf off Palo to mark his return to the Philippines in World War II. But he didn't get a cat pulled out of the rubble named after him by children surviving a horrific typhoon.

I could not feel more honored.

Jennifer Hardy is a Regional Information Officer for Catholic Relief Services, the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States