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How To Protect Your Data From A Hurricane, Flood, or Natural Disaster

save data

In the event of a disaster or major evacuation, you don’t just want to stay safe—you want to make sure all your important data is safe, as well. Here’s how to backup data and protect your hardware from the elements.

While the loss of data pales in comparison to the loss of life, it can make a return to normalcy that much easier to have important information, photographs, and documents protected when you have to act fast and plan an escape. In this extensive article, we’ve included links to emergency planning websites, information about various disasters, checklists for emergency supply kits, loads of great ways to backup your data, both off and online, and a final contingency plan—removing your hard disk, and evacuating to safety! Readers are encouraged to share their experiences in dealing with natural disasters, as well as the backup solutions that have worked out best.

 

First Things First: Be Prepared, and Be Safe

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Although this article is primarily about protecting your data, the first place you should always start is by protecting yourself. Regardless of where you live and what sort of disaster you might be facing, preparation is always key and, in the right situation, could possibly save your life. There are numerous resources online for advice and planning for emergencies and disasters, including Ready.gov, which is a US government public service website for spreading this very type of information. On it, you can find instructions on how to make emergency kits, create emergency plans with your family, and general information about what to expect in case of earthquake, flood, hurricanes, and many many other potential disasters. Here’s a short list of links to some of the information available.

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One of the most important things to prepare is an emergency supply kit. These usually include non-perishable food, batteries, prescription medicine, water, clothes, flashlights, radios, and various other items that would prove useful in case you are forced to evacuate, or have to leave your home for an extended period of time. Ready.gov has a very helpful checklist in PDF form, for printing or downloading.

What Data Is Most Important?

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In an emergency situation, you might not have all the time in the world to leisurely make a complete backup of your drives. Prioritize what’s important to you, e.g. family photos, an expensive music collection, tax and legal documents, school assignments, creative work, or maybe even video game save files. Our own tech superhero The How-To Geek, has already written a pretty handy description of what’s most important back up.

 

Keep Important Data In the Cloud

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One very useful strategy is to upload your data to cloud-based services, provided that the services you’re uploading to don’t have servers based in the effected area. The advantage of keeping lots of your data in cloud-based services is that if you lose your PC or it gets broken, you can jump to any other machine and retrieve the bulk of your most important information.

Photo sharing websites like Flickr can be a good place to back up photos, and in case of disaster or hard drive failure, can be a good place to reclaim lost images. Dropbox is a good service for remotely backing up those important files, although you may want to encrypt important documents with sensitive data, like tax forms with social security numbers, etc.

Email and communication is also terribly important, because it allows you to store not only lots of text based information, but also images, contacts, and important correspondence. Gmail, in addition to this, also has the ability to make phone calls and send text messages, so it can be terribly important to keep an email account that you can access from any computer.

Author’s Note: We realize that there are TONS of cloud based services you can store data in, and it would be futile for us to list them all. But for the sake of helping out your fellow HTG readers, feel free to share your favorites with us in the comments below.

 

Back Up Your Data Online With Pay Services (And One Free One)

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There are also myriad ways to pay for automatic online backup. While we don’t particularly endorse any one brand over another, some of the major contenders are Mozy and Carbonite. PCMag.com has written a roundup of these services, which can be found here.

In addition to this, you can also check out an older How To Geek article, about how to remotely back up your data for free with CrashPlan.

 

Use External Hard Drives, Key Drives, or Hard Drive Enclosures

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Some sensitive data you might not be comfortable uploading to Dropbox or putting on Flickr. For that, external hard drives and key drives can be excellent solutions. External drives have great portability, and for those of you that need greater portability still, flash drives like the Lacie Iamakey are easy to carry and dependable (Author’s note: This is based on my own personal experience). You might feel better keeping your most sensitive data encrypted on your keychain, rather than emailing it to yourself in Gmail.

Hard drive enclosures are simple USB devices that internal drives can hook into. Basically, they can turn an internal hard drive into an external one, and can be swapped out easily. Keep reading, and we’ll show you how to remove your internal hard drives in a worst case scenario.

 

Protect Sensitive Electronics With Dry Bags

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Dry bags are designed for kayakers and rafters to keep their keys, food, and other items dry when they’re going down a river or body of water and fall in. If you think you might have to deal with a lot of flooded areas, you might want to look into a few dry bags for your electronics. Be careful, though—while dry bags will float and keep your electronics dry during a quick dip underwater, they may not be rated to be submerged for long periods of time.

Dry Bags (Google Shopping)

 

Worst Case Scenario: Take Out That Drive and RUN!

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Last but not least, in the situation when you don’t have your data backed up, you don’t have it on a laptop or smaller computer, and you can’t lug that huge tower around with you, it may come down to removing your hard drive. Here’s a quick photo how-to for those of you that have never done it before.

Disclaimer: Opening your computer is scary, and yes, it can cause a lot of problems if you aren’t careful. So be careful, and be warned, you it is possible to do more harm than good. In general, though, removing hard drives is simple business.

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You will need only one tool to open your computer tower—an ordinary Phillips head screwdriver. Normally magnetized screwdrivers don’t cause any harm, but they still are not recommended for this task.

Author’s Note: A small percentage of you may need a torx or hex head driver. These tools are less common, as are the bolts. At least, this is true in the places we’re going to be working, which are designed to be opened the normal way.

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Notice that the computer is unplugged, and make sure yours is as well before removing the screws on the back of the case.

DSC_0034 copy There are usually four on an ordinary computer case, and they hold the two sides in place. If yours has more, you’ll simply have to unscrew more bolts.

If your case is weird and exotic, look in the manual for the case, or use Google to find out directions on how to get it open.

In general, there are only a few fasteners, and they go through the side casings as shown here, highlighted in red.

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Remove the left side of the case by pushing it towards the back. You may have to lift up and out, or simply push back towards the back, or even remove the top first, although this is less common.

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While you’re at it, you may need to remove the right side of the case, as many hard drives are screwed in on both sides of the drive cage. Like the left side, the right side removes by being pushed toward the back.

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Isn’t it beautiful? We need to remove those cables, then get the drive out.

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This closeup shows an older standard for hard drive power and data. Yours may look different, and in fact, will likely be SATA power and data. These are actually easier to remove than these old IDE/PATA standards. Regardless, you’ll be looking for this spot in your case, where your hard drive is installed. Note the screws on the right.

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Remove the IDE/PATA data and power cables by gently rocking them back and forth. If they’re the smaller SATA cables, they won’t take as much coaxing to remove. IDE cables can be stubborn.

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This is roughly what your drive cage should look like, facing out to you on the left side of the PC. We’re going to simply unscrew these.

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There’s not a lot to it, really. With your drive unplugged, take out all the screws holding the drive in place.

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Check out the right side of the case before attempting to remove the hard drive. It may have additional screws holding the drive in place. They’ll be in a place like the one pointed to here.

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Handle the drive by the sides, and keep your fingers off of the circuit board. Take it straight out, and be careful not to bump it against any of the other components, if you can help it—it can be bad both for the drive and the other components.

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Your drive is now removed, and should be ready to be a part of your mad dash away from danger.

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In addition to removing your drive, it can be helpful to keep anti-static bags on hand to protect your drive from the elements. These are good for storing drives outside of actual computers, and protect them from static shock. In addition to this protection, the additional layer of a dry bag may save your data when briefly submerged in floodwaters.


With hurricanes approaching, tsunamis, and earthquakes in our recent past, it can only help your chances to be prepared for disaster. Stay safe out there, HTG Readers, and keep your data protected!

Image Credits: Katrina’s Fury by Sue Cline, available under Creative Commons. Hard Drive by walknboston, available under Creative Commons. Family History by alittlebirdy, available under Creative Commons.

Eric Z Goodnight is an Illustrator and Graphics Geek who hopes to make Photoshop more accessible to How-To Geek readers. When he’s not headbanging to heavy metal or geeking out over manga, he’s often off screen printing T-Shirts.

  • Published 08/26/11

Comments (20)

  1. severn dickinson

    Check out iosafe hard drives. water proof and fireproof

  2. Albert

    It can be also very helpful to mount the hard drive in a removable bay, so it can be taken out without having to open the case!

  3. johnny z

    you covered all the major types of disasters except one….

    VOLCANOS

    we still have them here in the u.s.
    and no telling when some of the more
    seismically active ones are gonna go off

  4. sai

    well volcanos are a spinoff of these. same thing: back up data on the cloud, take valuables with you if/when you evacuate. if the drive is destroyed, it’s gone. to keep yourself safe, Ready.gov/volcanoes is available as well.

  5. Hugo Belin

    How about using SkyDrive for storage on the cloud
    25Gb is a nice amount of space and you can create many hotmail accounts as needed ;)
    You can upload up to 200Mb at a time which also seems good enough

  6. Gavin

    Disappointed you did not mention Ubuntu One as a cloud option for back up. We run the local water 7 sewer company and recently were evacuees from the Wallow Fire in Arizona. As the fire started moving closer, we set up a trailer by our office for important stuff… in case. Suddenly the timeline changed from days to minutes. So much for the trailer. Having most important files in the cloud on Ubuntu One allowed us to maintain at least a modicum of functionality while at a remote location.

    I can testify, sometimes there just isn’t time, so having the important stuff in the Cloud — always current — well, it’s inexcusable not to.

  7. Katie

    Being in Houston and having gone thru Ike, this is a great article! I’m new in the IT business so all the tips and comments are invaluable to me. THANK ALL OF YOU!!!

  8. Wayne

    Ubuntu One would serve a very small percentage of people as you have to be using Ubuntu to use Ubuntu One. Linux as a whole has about a 2% marketshare among users, not counting server usage. Ubuntu is going to be much smaller. This is most likely why it wasn’t included.

    For servers, you should already have an off-site backup system in place.

  9. Anon

    LOL @ Worst Case Scenario: Take Out That Drive and RUN!

    That was almost my situation when tornado season was here, except, I hid in the basement with my HDD’s/SDD’s/SDHC’s/DVDRW’s, damn tornadoes.

    Wuala is a good online storage service, as your data gets encrypted before it leaves your pc to be in the cloud.

    http://www.wuala.com/

  10. Lady Fitzgerald

    Multiple backups with at least one offsite (including the cloud) is the best way to protect data. Waiting until a disaster is the worst time to start backing up data. Backups should be done frequently to ensure minimal data loss in case of sudden disaster.

    I strongly recommend not using free cloud services for backups. Those have been known to go down suddenly with little or no warning. The paid ones are far more secure. Carbonite ($55/yr) and Mozy ($60/yr) are the two best ones. They automatically perform backups of data (data only), including limited versioning, in the background without slowing one’s computer. I use Carbonite: it has saved my bacon on occasion when I accidentally deleted a file. Before you quail at the cost, first, it’s $5 or less a month. Second, how valuable is your data? Third, how concientious are you when it comes to doing your own backups? Not only do Carbonite and Mozy ensure your backups are kept up to date but, since the backups are offsite, your data is protected even if your local backups are also destroyed.

    It would also be a good idea to keep original program CDs and DVDs (use copies at home), etc. in a safe deposit box at a bank with a reasonably disaster proof vault. One thing I’ve learned is there are some files Carbonite will not back up (mostly program files). In my case, I always keep downloaded program installation files in a folder on my computer so I won’t have to find and redownload them again in case of a disaster. I also keep earlier versions in case a later one doesn’t work out. Carbonite will not back them up so I keep a copy of the folder on a flash drive in my purse. It wouldn’t hurt to also keep a copy of the folder or the files as an attachment to an email in an email account.

  11. Reginald Cook

    A beautifully concise, comprehensive, and analytical response about what can sensibly be done to avoid data disaster

  12. Oz DiGennaro

    For data storage, a multi-faceted approach serves me the best: daily updates to the cloud, a massive external hard drive, multiple USB drives. Occaisonal off-site backup to DVD’s etc – for the really valuable data (projects near completion). iPad for contacts backup.

    If you plan to yank your hard-disks in a hurry, you’d better practice at least once. I like the idea of an external hard drive much better. $100 buys a LOT of protection.

    Think about two kinds of emergencies: You stay home for days or weeks off the grid. You have to run. Two different kinds of preparation. For example, when staying home, what are you going to use as a toilet for days without running water?

    I’m a ham radio operator, so there’s a whole set of preparation to maintain communication (for me and for the community). Multiple radios and LOTS of big batteries. Train and practice

    If you don’t practice, you won’t be able to do it when it’s really needed.

    Oz on the high plains.

  13. Girlincloud

    There is another option to backup data to cloud storage powered by Amazon S3. You can check out CloudBerry Backup http://backup.cloudberrylab.com/ It is onetime fee and the rest what you pay for Amazon S3. Besides, there is no proprietary data format and you can access your data using other Amazon s3 tools. It supports all AWS regions, Reduced Redundancy Storage and access to cloud storage using the virtual drive. What safer place to keep your files than Amazon’s servers?

    Girlincloud,
    CloudBerry lab team

  14. David

    @Wayne
    Ubuntu One for Windows – wiki.ubuntu.com/UbuntuOne/Windows

  15. Antoni Uni

    DON’T rely too much on Flickr! Your account can be deleted within minutes when Flickr thinks you were not following their bible with rules, and sometimes without any possibility to defend one-self! There are better ways and/or better public albums!

  16. Spiny Norman

    @Antoni: Agreed. Flickr pretends to be friendly, but if you have a problem they turn impenetrably corporate. Their rules are many and vague, and their application is notoriously arbitrary. Doesn’t matter if you have a paid account either. I’ve seen it happen to several contacts.

  17. Eric Z Goodnight

    @Antoni, @Spiny Norman: That’s a good addendum. If either of you have a better alternative, I’ll update the article with your suggestions.

  18. Lady Fitzgerald

    I earlier reported that there are some files Carbonite will not back up (mostly program files). Recovered program installation files wouldn’t work. It just dawned on me that when one attempts to download or restore program installation files backed up on Carbonite, the downloaded filename is missing the .exe. For excrement and merriment, I downloaded a file and added.exe to the file name. The file then worked like it’s supposed to. So I retract what I said about Carbonite not backing up program installation files. One still has to tell Carbonite to back up each program installation file via the right click menu but at least it is doable.

    I’m an old lady and I still learn something new every day.

  19. Scott

    Portable hard drives with large storage capcacity now fit in your pocket. I suggest backup up your computer to a pocket-sized hard drive on a regular basis. I also like to keep a copy of important data at multiple locations (extra copy in my desk drawer at work). Flash drives may have less capacity, but are more durable and portable in a rush situation.

    Cloud? Paid subscripions expire, free services may be forgotten if not used frequently. I’m not inclined to pay for a service that I may or may not use.

    Be aware that copying JPG pictures form media to media result in a loss of clarity. When transfering pictures from a camera, save them directly to your computer AND directly to your backup device at the same time.

  20. AL B.

    I don’t see anything about Sugarsync, I’ve been using them for a couple years now and got the paid service last new years on sale. i have read several articles that list them as being better than Mozy, Carbonite, and Dropbox. Mainly because they allow you to choose which folders/files to backup. They even do mobile backup and you can access files from your mobile(i use my BB and Ipod Touch). Sadly I will be leaving them at the end of my subscription because they don’t have a Linux client. I recently left windows for Linux so I’ll be trying CrashPlan, which seems very interesting price wise and the unlimited option…250GB in music and 40GB in pics. On top of that I will continue to use my Openfiler NAS cause i don’t see my 600GB video collection being sync’d to the cloud :)

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