Nobody likes to think about disaster, but as the resident security guy, I'm frequently involved with disaster planning around the home and the office. Preparedness is the key, so get ready now while the threat is still low. Obviously, tending to family and pets takes a higher priority than mere hardware, but as we found out after Katrina, sometimes you won't be able to get back home right away, yet you'll need certain critical data to move on with your life. Many Gulf Coast residents learned valuable lessons after last year; here are some of their suggestions with regard to computer data and personal information, as well as several steps you can take to make an emergency evacuation and recovery less painful.
Many of those relocated outside of the Gulf Coast last fall found themselves with the opportunity to use Internet-connected computers--but they had no idea how to get the information they needed. Those who had moved their banking and bill-paying online were able to quickly put back together their financial lives after Katrina. Now might be a good time for the rest of us to sign up for these online services.
Create a small Notepad file or a spreadsheet with all of your personal information on it--everything. Doctor information, prescription drugs, pharmacies, school information, e-mail addresses, physical addresses, phone numbers. The essence here is to have a backup of your banking information (include bank account numbers, stocks, and anything you access online), insurance (policy, agent, and such), and ISP (you might need to reestablish your account). If you run a small business, copy lists of your customers, vendors, account numbers, and payroll contact information (if you have a staff) into a separate folder. Later, burn the contents of that folder to a disc or a flash drive for safekeeping.
Those who had moved their banking and bill-paying online were able to quickly put back together their financial lives after Katrina.
Why not also make digital copies of important papers? If you have a scanner, scan important documents--birth certificates, mortgages (at least the first couple of pages), tax forms, anything you think will be important. Save them as PDF files and copy them to a folder on your hard drive. PDF readers are free to download, and accessing these documents after a disaster could speed the process of applying for aid.
While you're at it, take the time to make CD or DVD copies of all your digital photos and music. Because the file sizes are larger, you'll need to burn several discs. The personal text files, spreadsheets, and PDF files mentioned above should also be burned to a disc. Store these discs in a safety deposit box. Another option is to mail the photograph discs to relatives in another state (ideally, a state unlikely to suffer from the same natural disaster). Your relatives will not only enjoy the photos, but their home will provide a safe backup for the data.
Before evacuating, copy any updated personal file data to a USB flash drive. These drives are handy and can be part of your evacuation kit. Then, whenever you next get computer access, you can plug in the USB drive and print out the info. I'd go the additional step of recommending that you encrypt this data. ZDNet has a blog about encrypted USB drives; you can use WinZip and other common applications, such as PGP, to encrypt the data. When you need to extract the data, both WinZip and PGP have free downloads to install on the new computer.
If you want, you can wear the USB drive with your personal files on your key ring. That way, in a moment's notice, you can dash off to the evacuation center.
If you want, you can wear the USB drive with your personal files on your key ring. That way, in a moment's notice, you can dash off to the evacuation center; while you may have only the clothes on your back, you'll also have some of the data you'll need to reconstruct your life.
Additional sources Do you have an evacuation plan for your digital information? Why or why not? Talk back to me
This list is by no means complete; it's intended to get you started thinking about the unthinkable. The following services and agencies have additional information on preparedness: American Red Cross and the U.S. Small Business Association.