FamilySearch Donates Digitized Records Destroyed in Typhoon Haiyan

Contributed By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer

  • 19 November 2014

Records in Marabut, Eastern Samar, were destroyed by Typoon Haiyan.

Article Highlights

  • Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in November of 2013, destroying homes and records and causing many deaths.
  • FamilySearch had digitized civil records, which were only kept on paper in the Philippines.
  • The records were donated back to the cities where all records had been destroyed.

“It was a very touching moment when city officials learned that the memories of the past had not been swept away by the typhoon but that essential knowledge about past generations had been preserved.” —Bishop Gérald Caussé of the Presiding Bishopric

When Typhoon Haiyan—known locally as Typhoon Yolanda—wreaked its devastation in the Philippines a year ago, government officials in four cities thought the loss included irreplaceable civil records.

What they hadn’t counted on was a godsend: the Church’s international genealogical organization known as FamilySearch.

Having digitally captured the records, FamilySearch recently donated copies back to the cities where the records had been copied: Tacloban and the smaller municipalities of Guiuan, Hernani, and Marabut, located on the island of Samar.

“By the time the storm got to Tacloban, there was a storm surge behind it with 10-foot waves that went inland for about two miles,” said Derek B. Dobson, FamilySearch senior program manager for Asia and the Pacific, in describing the November 8, 2013, devastation. “So anything that was right there on the oceanfront just got hammered and devastated by these waves.”

About 10 years ago, he said, FamilySearch country manager Manolito (“Manny”) Baul had secured the cooperation of government officials in the four cities for the digital capture of their civil records.

“I was present on the day [October 20] when we got to meet with the officials there in those cities and to donate to them copies of their records,” he said. He was accompanied by Brother Baul and by Felvir D. Ordinario, in-country FamilySearch employees.

The next day, Bishop Gérald Caussé, First Counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, and Elder Lynn G. Robbins of the Seventy went to Tacloban with Brother Baul, likewise to donate digitized copies of records that had been destroyed in the storm.

Brother Dobson described the visit to Guiuan, which coincidentally transpired on the 70th anniversary of the historic landing in the Philippines of forces under the command of U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur.

Bishop Gérald Caussé, second from right, returns family history records to Tacloban, Philippines, where Typhoon Haiyan devastated the city in November 2013.

New construction stands amid devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan in Hernani, Eastern Samar.

FamilySearch employees return records destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan, in Hernani, Eastern Samar.

Still recovering from the devastation of a year ago, Guiuan city officials had set up the government registrar’s office in a mobile home. There, the FamilySearch representatives presented a computer hard drive containing thousands of images, including civil registry records and birth certificates.

The FamilySearch people walked to a tent serving as a temporary city hall, where they had expected to meet with the mayor, Brother Dobson said. The mayor was not available, but they did meet with the mayor’s personal assistant, his first cousin.

“We showed him the records on the hard drive,” Brother Dobson recounted. “He said, ‘I don’t have a copy of my registry file; I’ve never seen it. Do you think you have it?’”

Brother Ordinario attached the hard drive to a computer and located a copy of the man’s registry file, including his birth certificate.

“He was spiritually touched and got somewhat emotional,” Brother Dobson said. “He was very, vary warm toward us. He said, ‘If there are any other records you’d like to digitize, you’re welcome to.’”

Brother Baul pledged to return and capture more records.

A similar experience occurred in Hernani.

Meeting with the mayor, Edgar C. Boco, they explained the purpose of their visit and presented a hard drive containing images of civil registry records. Viewing the images on a computer, the mayor pointed to one record and exclaimed, “That’s me!”

“So we printed out a copy of his record for him that he had never received before,” Brother Dobson said.

The city registrar in Hernani had been suspicious 10 years earlier when approached by FamilySearch representatives hoping to capture the records, thinking they perhaps were CIA agents from the United States, Brother Dobson said. But contacted in September with an offer to donate digitized copies of the records, she began to weep.

“I cannot believe what your organization is doing,” she said. “This is amazing.”

In Marabut, the FamilySearch representatives saw at the city offices records that were extensively damaged with mold and mildew, having been dampened during the typhoon.

“Manny looked through them and realized we actually had some of them digitized,” Brother Dobson said.

Entering a temporary shelter, they met with the registrar, who was delighted with the donation of the digitized records. She showed them other records that had been preserved from the storm and asked them to come back and digitally capture those records as well.

Regarding the visit to Tacloban, Bishop Caussé said the records donation was probably one of the most significant contributions the Church has made to recovery efforts in that city.

“It was a very touching moment when city officials learned that the memories of the past had not been swept away by the typhoon but that essential knowledge about past generations had been preserved,” he said.

“This is one of the reasons why we capture records,” said Jennifer Kerns Davis, a collections manager for FamilySearch. “It’s not just for the genealogical value that they hold, though that’s our main reason, but it’s also the preservation value that it affords us.”

She added, “We’ve done this many, many times, with earthquakes, any kind of flooding or other natural disasters, and we’ve done it in a lot of places all over the world. We try to give back, because they already gave us the opportunity to capture their records. In most cases, we have donated back to them a digital or a film copy of what we captured, so it can be preserved onsite as well as on Internet servers.”