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Avoiding Data Disasters

Disasters like Hurricane Katrina have been with us for a long time, but in today's world there are additional things to think about as people begin the recovery process. In addition to worrying about the well being of people, pets and the roof over their heads, they also have to think about sensitive electronic equipment, including computers and data stored on PC hard drives.

Disasters like these are also a good time to remind the rest of us about how to protect ourselves in the future. Even if you don't live in hurricane country, you still run the risk of another type of disaster, fire or just a run-of-the-mill power failure.

Even if your home or business wasn't damaged, there is a good chance that you lost power if you're in Katrina's path. If so, it's a good idea to unplug computers, TVs and other sensitive electronic equipment to avoid the risk of damage from a power surge when the power comes back on.

That's not to say that your equipment definitely will be damaged. More often than not there are no negative consequences to electronics when power comes back on, but it is a possibility. To help protect your equipment in the future, it's a good idea to use a surge protector, especially with computers, regardless of where you live.

If your equipment has gotten wet, take a moment to plan your recovery strategy before you plug anything back in. To begin with, don't plug in anything if it's even damp, let alone wet.

Make sure that any equipment that has been touched by water is completely dry before turning it on. That goes for battery-operated equipment as well as equipment that you plug in.

If the water damage was minor, it might work fine. Even if it's underwater, you might luck out. I once had a cell phone that went through the washing machine yet miraculously worked once it dried out. Had I turned it on when it was still wet, it would have almost certainly have been permanently damaged.

If your computer is completely underwater, there is a strong likelihood that your hard drive has been damaged. If you have a backup, you're going to be OK. If you don't have a backup, you might still be able to recover the data, but it will cost you.

John Christopher, a data recovery engineer for DriveSavers says there is a "60 to 90 percent chance that we can recover data from a water-damaged computer."

The typical cost for such a recovery can be $1,000 or more, depending on the amount of data. The company is offering a 20% discount to victims of hurricane Katrina but it's still a lot of money.
On the other hand, if your data is important to you, it may very well be worth the cost. Other data recovery services include Ontrack and Data Recovery Group.

Businesses affected by a hurricane or other disaster need to think about how they can keep their operations intact, even if it means relocating employees. There are several companies that help businesses maintain continuity regardless of what might happen to their offices.

Austin-based MessageOne, for example, operates what it calls an "Emergency Mail System" that can be "activated instantly at the customer's request, guaranteeing uninterrupted email services in the event that an organization's primary messaging system becomes unavailable or incapacitated."

The service operates a standby email system that can be automatically synchronized with a company's email system on an ongoing basis. According to the company's website, "in less than minute, selected email users will have direct access to a fully functional Web-based email account that allows users to send and receive email from their standard email address." The standby system is said to include "all of the key features of the primary email system including contact lists, calendar appointments, distribution lists, and important historical email."

Whether you're protecting corporate data or family photos, it's always a good idea to have a backup system. Computers can always be replaced but it's sometimes impossible to replace your data. None of us really want to think about this, but the best bet is to have an off-premise backup that will protect your data even if your entire home or office is underwater or destroyed in a fire.

One simple and inexpensive strategy is to regularly copy your important files to a CD and store them somewhere away from your computer, preferably in an entirely different location. I've been known to mail discs to friends or store backup discs in the trunk of my car. If you commute between home and office, depending on the nature of your job, you may wish to keep a backup of your office data at home and vice versa.

There are, of course, lots of other backup solutions. I use a 200 gigabyte Maxtor OneTouch external hard drive ($199) that plugs into the USB port of my PC. Assuming that I had a moment's notice, I could grab it and take it with me in case of an impending disaster.

A colleague of mine uses one of those USB flash drives that's small enough to attach to a keychain. You can get a 1 gigabyte drive for under $80 or 2 GB for about $150. Even if it can't hold all your data, it may be sufficient for your critical files such as your financial records, most precious photographs or that great American novel you're still working on.

Another option is to backup via the Internet. One option, @Backup offers an automated online backup service starting at $4.95 a month for 250 megabytes. The cost goes up as your data storage increases. The advantage to a service like this is that you don't have to worry about backup or recovery. Data is encrypted (for privacy) and stored in a highly secure environment.

Although web-based email systems aren't really designed for backup, they can be used to protect at least a few mission critical files. Google's free Gmail service, for example, will store up to 2 gigabytes of data per account. I sometimes use it to email important documents to myself. Then, if something happens, I can download a copy from any computer with Internet access. Fortunately, I haven't had any disasters but I have on occasions wound up accessing these files from other computers when I'm away from home.

A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
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