Recovering PC Data after Flood Damage

Many people whose houses were flooded by Katrina thought they lost data stored in their computers. Technology consultants say the best thing to do with flood damaged PCs is to send the equipment immediately to the experts, wrapped in plastic — and not to wait until the device is dry.

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SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

Time now for business news. Survivors of disasters--hurricanes, fires--often say they try to grab the family photo album as they go out the door. These days, that might mean grabbing a computer or a box of CD-ROMs. NPR's Larry Abramson reports that people whose computers were swamped by Katrina are now looking for ways to save their photos or the data they need to restart a business.

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

People sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to save their digital information. Scott Gaidano, co-founder of a data recovery company called DriveSavers, tells the story of a professional juggler who lost her laptop when the cruise ship she was on sank in the Amazon River.

Mr. SCOTT GAIDANO (Co-founder, DriveSavers): So against all international law, I rented scuba gear, went down 20 feet, broke into the bridge, got down to her stateroom and got her laptop out.

ABRAMSON: DriveSavers, based in Nevada, California, was able to retrieve the personal memoir stored on the juggler's computer. Now Gaidano is hearing from people like the couple who rescued their computers after they saved themselves by climbing a tree to escape flooding.

Mr. GAIDANO: And then they came down and they got their computer and their laptop, which was already outside the house in the water, and they got them to dry ground, and those are on the way to DriveSavers.

ABRAMSON: Data recovery companies are expecting a lot of soggy hard drives, CD-ROMs, DVDs, thumb drives, even those 5 1/4-inch floppy disks. They'll be taken to labs like this one at OnTrack Data Recovery in West End, Virginia, where a technician is making a copy of a damaged hard drive. Engineering manager Hubert King(ph) explains that his staff works in this special clean room where fans protect the drives from new contaminants.

Mr. HUBERT KING (OnTrack Data Recovery): So basically, he's getting a second-by-second image of the drive. The drives that are opened in the clean room typically experience mechanical problems, as I said, drives that have been in the fire or in the flood.

ABRAMSON: King says people often make one key mistake: They try to fix the hard drive themselves.

Mr. KING: You know, if the drive is banging or clicking, they will attempt to open it up themselves and tinker around with it and see if they can fix it, thus causing more problems for us when we receive it in here.

ABRAMSON: King also urges people not to dry the equipment out since that just speeds up the decay. He says they should send it in, damp, in a plastic bag to a recovery company. King says that by carefully reconstructing each chunk of data, his staff can rescue all but the most desperate cases. Much of the information that's at risk is of more than sentimental value. Michael Stankard of Exchange Recovery Clinic in Safety Harbor, Florida, is getting calls from many businesses who need to salvage data immediately.

Mr. MICHAEL STANKARD (Exchange Recovery Clinic): They're business things, so they know what orders they need to fulfill. They know where their sales people are going to go.

ABRAMSON: Stankard says many affected companies are struggling to find alternative office space, and when they do, they need his help to get their information systems up and running again.

Mr. STANKARD: Is there any way that you could hook us up with our mail in an exchange environment? And a lot of times we can't, but at least we can get them their personal mail folders, and their people can have access to their mail and they could send and receive mail.

ABRAMSON: Stankard and other information recovery specialists say this disaster is a case study of the need to have redundant business computers far from headquarters. His Florida-based company has backup capacity in the United Kingdom and in Texas. Katrina also demonstrates the need to make new backups on tape or CD on a regular basis, although Scott Gaidano of DriveSavers says that didn't help people hit by a storm of this size.

Mr. GAIDANO: In this particular kind of situation, many people are backed up, but, of course, the backup is inundated as well.

ABRAMSON: Gaidano says, as a seasoned professional, he often keeps a backup of key business records stored safely in a cooler in the backseat of his car. Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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