I should have known better than to click on the latest JW.org video, entitled “Philippines Typhoon—Faith Conquers Adversity.”
My intuition told me it would be a shameless piece of propaganda – an attempt at taking a deadly natural disaster and turning it into a tool for recruitment and self-praise. But click I did, and I am still struggling to find the words for what I have just seen.
The film starts with footage of a reported 41 Filipino Witnesses getting baptized a month after Typhoon Haiyan savaged their country. Straight away you suspect that the onus of the film will be less on the personal tragedies, and more about how God’s organization has triumphed despite calamity.
Smiling convention attendees wave at the camera brandishing their newly released publications, as though these have somehow made them forget all their woes.
The narrator then explains that “more than 185,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses live in the Philippines” before revealing that many of these were in the direct path of Typhoon Haiyan when it struck on November 8, 2013.
A phone rings, and is answered by Hubertus Hoefnagels of the Philippines Branch. We are reassured that “before the storm hit, the Philippines Branch Office began coordinating the evacuation and relief effort.”
Hubertus is shown with a Filippino brother staring attentively at a map of the islands, plotting the storm’s trajectory. The words “Fri 4:40am Nov 8” are scribbled on the map in red marker ink to denote the moment the super-typhoon made landfall.
“They are preparing for the typhoon because the news say that we need to prepare,” says Rodnie Barcenas, a Circuit Overseer, in his broken English. “So I text everybody every elder in congregation, I text that they need to evacuate to a separate place.”
Just what “separate place” Rodnie is referring to is left a mystery, but one assumes it is somewhere as far as possible from the path of destruction.
“We knew it was going to do tremendous damage,” adds Hubertus.
Hence, the reassuing impression is very deliberately given at the outset of this film that the Philippines Branch Office (1) had prior warning of the typhoon and (2) were in control of matters before it hit. It is even suggested that evacuation plans were put into operation at circuit overseer-level.
When you consider these claims carefully, it makes the information conveyed in the remainder of the film simply astounding.
Below is a map showing the locations of the three congregations that are featured in the video, all of which are in or near the path of Haiyan.
As the map indicates, if the story were to be presented chronologically the events befalling the congregation in Guiuan would be shown first. However, the filmmakers have a clear agenda, and they need to get some extremely bad news out of the way early on in the film in order to achieve a sufficiently cheery end. And so they first must tell us the story of what happened in Tacloban.
Or at least some of the story.
Killed at the kingdom hall
We are taken into the home of a family living in Tacloban City. The father tells of his struggle in trying to hold the roof down before finally surrendering it to the typhoon.
An excited young girl shows viewers the family’s refrigerator, in which various publications are crammed – including the dreadful Become Jehovah’s Friend DVD. Pride is taken in the fact that mass-produced books were deemed more important than provisions in a time of crisis.
Then we behold the Tacloban kingdom hall – or what is left of it. Walls are non-existent, as though an unstoppable force has bulldozed through. Only the tattered roof remains, held aloft by battered columns.
The narrator tells us that 22 Witnesses perished in this kingdom hall alone – swept away by a 5-meter-high tidal surge.
Driving home the human cost of this tragedy is the story of 13-year-old Sheryl Gariando – one of only 38 survivors of the devastated kingdom hall. Her entire family, apart from her little brother, succumbed to the raging waters. The fact that her little brother was reunited with her one day before the district convention is somehow deemed to be of significance.
At this point you think back to Hubertus and his map, and wonder – “what were these people doing in a kingdom hall during a typhoon?”
If the Branch Office had advance warning that Haiyan was approaching, was it really wise for a congregation to be cowering in a coastal kingdom hall in the path of a typhoon rather than scrambling for safer ground?
Two congregations that survived
But we are not given much time to dwell on such questions. Instead, we are whisked 9 miles down the coast to Tanauan, where 44 Witnesses survived despite being in a kingdom hall that was uprooted by the wind and high waters before being dumped 15 meters from its foundations.
One of the extremely fortunate survivors tells us that he gained strength from looking up at the yeartext above the platform, with its words “Jehovah your God is with you.”
Little thought is given to the fact that the exact same words looked down on the man’s ill-fated brothers in Tacloban. It seems the filmmakers would rather we focus on the thought that the “solid structures” of kingdom halls saved lives in at least some places.
Conducting a meeting in the face of a typhoon
And so we are finally taken to Guiuan, where the typhoon first made landfall. Similar to the congregation in Tanauan, the congregation sought shelter in their kingdom hall and somehow survived despite their lives being endangered – in this case by a collapsed ceiling.
But as the story of Guiuan is being related, an intriguing detail slips from the mouth of a local brother as he is interviewed (bold is mine).
“When the typhoon struck we are inside the kingdom hall. After the meeting, some of the brothers stayed in the Kingdom Hall and other half of the group went to the sister’s house, especially the children.”
There is no sign here of a carefully coordinated and diligently executed evacuation effort. Instead, at least in Guiuan there seems to have been a free-for-all as to whether local brothers sheltered in the kingdom hall or in nearby homes.
But more disturbing is this brother’s revelation that a meeting had been in progress on the same night the storm hit.
At the risk of boring you, I will remind you once again of Hubertus and his map back at the branch office in Manilla, and his all-too understated words, “we knew it was going to do tremendous damage.”
How did the authorities respond?
It was at this point that I felt more information was required. Precisely what would Hubertus and his colleagues have known before the typhoon struck? What warnings were issued by the authorities?
A quick search on Wikipedia yielded the answers.
Under the heading “Preparations” in the article for Typhoon Haiyan, we are told: “By the evening of November 7, PSWS No. 4, the highest level of warning which indicates winds in excess of 185 km/h (115 mph) are expected, was raised for… Eastern Samar, [and] Leyte” (Samar being the island where Guiuan is located, while Tacloban and Tanauan are both on the island of Leyte).
And so we have the highest possible state of alert issued on the evening of Thursday, November 7th for all three congregations featured in the video. But what measures were taken by local authorities?
When I read the above words, my heart sank.
Guiuan is precariously situated on a narrow peninsula surrounded by ocean, and both the Tanauan and Tacloban kingdom halls had been clearly inundated by floodwaters. These were unquestionably flood-prone areas. It seems inconceivable that the three kingdom halls in question were not in the area that was earmarked for evacuation by the authorities.
Could it be that the 22 who perished in the Tacloban congregation, and possibly others, were as much victims of Watchtower’s incompetence as the typhoon itself?
If this turns out to be true, the concluding minutes of the JW.org video are especially hard to watch. Mark Sanderson is seen flying to the rescue to impart words of encouragement to the typhoon survivors and oversee rebuilding efforts – or at least that is the impression the filmmakers aim to give us.
Especially disquieting is the footage showing Sanderson consoling young Sheryl and her brother. Sheryl is seen smiling, at one point even being hugged by Sanderson as she is shamelessly exploited for PR purposes.
There is every chance Sheryl will never know for sure whether she was embraced by a representative of the very organization that might be at least partly responsible for her being orphaned.
An apology long overdue
At this point you might be thinking that I am jumping the gun with my implications as to Watchtower’s liability. These are, after all, serious matters and details are scarce. But I would welcome the opportunity to set the record straight following a full explanation from the Governing Body as to why they are blameless in this apparent scandal.
If such an explanation were to be offered, I would happily recant – and do so publicly. But the required evidence would need to come in the form of (1) some kind of proof that the brothers in the featured congregations (especially Tacloban) were advised to evacuate the area but ignored this advice, or (2) that the claims made by Watchtower in its own video about the state of preparedness of the Philippines branch office were false or misleading.
Until such information surfaces, the evidence against Watchtower is very damning indeed. We have a situation where three congregations were cowering in their kingdom halls despite these being in the direct path of a typhoon, of which the local branch had advance knowledge, and on account of which local evacuation had been ordered by the authorities.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that kingdom halls, despite being “solid structures,” are not built with typhoons in mind – unless of course you are under the delusion that Jehovah’s hand is involved in manipulating the weather.
Which brings us to another small matter.
Irrespective of their liability (or lack thereof) in this disaster, the Governing Body owes an apology to the brothers and sisters of the Philippines, especially those who lost loved ones. Only a month before Haiyan hit, Geoffrey Jackson had the astonishing stupidity to stand on the platform at the 129th Annual Meeting and utter down his microphone the following words (bold is mine)…
“It’s interesting when we think about the production of this [Bible] we truly have seen Jehovah’s hand in helping the project. Just one example. The brothers in the Wallkill printery mentioned to us that normally the worst time of the year to print Bibles is summertime, because of the humidity, the heat. Oftentimes they have to stop the presses. But they told us this year when they had to do a lot of extra overtime to get these Bibles ready for us, and as you can see there’s one for each person here attending our program, this year there was no stoppage of Bible production! We had the mildest summer for many many years and we thank Jehovah for that.”
It shouldn’t take a typhoon sweeping through a kingdom hall and killing 22 Witnesses one month later for Geoffrey Jackson to realize that the above words were incredibly ill-judged and insensitive. Jehovah clearly does NOT manipulate the weather, either for the saving of human lives or for the printing of bibles.
An unequivocal apology by Geoffrey to the victims of Typhoon Haiyan, not to mention the victims of all natural disasters regardless of denomination, is thus urgently called for.
Of course, the saddest part of all of this is that the very ones who most deserve an explanation and apology are those who will likely never ask for it.
Witnesses like Sheryl will likely continue to serve the Watchtower in a mistaken belief that doing so will make them worthy to greet their loved ones in the resurrection. The grieving process is thus commandeered as a tool for indoctrination in the most appalling and opportunistic way.
An explanation to be demanded
For all Watchtower’s slick PR and heart-tugging propaganda, let the records show that a religion that proudly boasts of its preparedness for Typhoon Haiyan suffered losses of 33 confirmed dead in that disaster, with 10 more missing presumed dead.
According to the 2014 Yearbook, the population of the Philippines is 97,701,745. And according to this new video (and official figures), Typhoon Haiyan claimed the lives of 6,200. That is a mortality rate of 0.0063% for the country.
By comparison, Watchtower claims to have 185,000 Witnesses in the Philippines. When we include all those presumed dead with the confirmed figures, this gives us a mortality rate of 0.024% among Witnesses for Typhoon Haiyan – nearly four times the previously stated figure.
I understand that these figures are wide open to dispute, not least because the exact concentration of Witnesses in the typhoon-hit region is unknown compared to the local non-Witness population. Even so, serious questions must be asked and answered as to precisely why so many Witnesses died, with 22 in one congregation alone.
If the Governing Body stays silent on the question of whether Watchtower’s incompetence cost lives, as they no doubt will, their silence will speak volumes. But the question must still be asked, if only to honor the memory of those whose mistaken belief that a kingdom hall might withstand a typhoon cost them their lives.
- JW.org video “Philippines Typhoon – Faith Conquers Adversity“
- Wikipedia article for Typhoon Haiyan, sub-heading “Preparations”