Flood might destroy your PC, but not off-site backup files

Backup files can lessen pain of ruined PC

September 08, 2005|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

FOR MANY victims of Hurricane Katrina, there may be one more disaster waiting at home besides the obvious - I'm talking about the wreckage of personal computers and their data.

Computers are as vulnerable to flooding, destruction and looting as other electronic devices. But the impact of losing one can be far more devastating if the PC contains critical personal or business records.

Looking at the images of Gulf Coast wreckage, it's easy to see how the normal infrastructure of people's lives has been wrecked - including electricity, phone and Internet service. Even when services are restored, tens of thousands will have nothing left to come home to - their homes obliterated by wind and water.

I also began to realize just how indifferent I've been to the notion of planning for the worst that can happen - and indeed, did happen on the Gulf Coast.

Think about it. You don't need a Category 4 hurricane and a 22-foot storm surge to destroy records and equipment. A broken water pipe or a small fire will do. The only real difference between a "looter" who ransacks an abandoned house in New Orleans and a "burglar" who breaks into your home are terminology and location.

Nor is there an easy way to estimate the damage from a lost computer. True, hardware is no longer a major issue. Perfectly usable machines are available new for $500 or less today, with a few hundred dollars more for software. In the great scheme of a homeowner's hurricane losses, a PC is just one item on a long list.

The real problem is the information on the PC's hard drive - which can be priceless. And the more computer-oriented our lives are, the more valuable the information.

Remember, it doesn't take a geek to be computer-involved. Millions of ordinary folks keep track of checking accounts, investment portfolios and other financial records on computers. The list now includes electronic income tax returns that may go back a decade or more. We're also depending more on computers to manage correspondence (e-mail), personal and family keepsakes (digital photos and diaries) and daily entertainment (our digital music).

Now, before you go into panic mode, rest assured that losing a PC to flood, tsunami or hurricane won't wipe out your bank account or stock portfolio (unless you're the victim of very serious identity theft). In fact, online banking, portfolio management and bill paying are probably safer in the event of calamity than the alternatives - storing everything on your computer or doing it all by hand.

Banks, credit-card companies and stock brokerages have fully backed-up systems that rarely crash for any reason, and then only for short periods. The Sept. 11 terrorists struck the heart of the nation's financial center four years ago, but very little information was irretrievably lost.

More importantly, with online banking, you can access your account and pay bills from any PC that has an Internet connection. One of the main concerns voiced by those who fled their homes to escape Katrina is that they have no access to their money and no physical way to pay their bills.

With online transactions, your physical location - and the location of the PC you're using - no longer matter.

Even so, without a backup , your financial records may be difficult, if not impossible to reconstruct should there ever be a dispute. Likewise, unless you back up your hard drive, your digital photos could disappear, leaving only dim memories of important moments in your life. Same with the music you've purchased online.

So the obvious recommendation is to back up your system. The question is how and how often.

One problem is that today's operating systems and software are so bloated that making a backup of your hard drive to CD or even DVD is too time-consuming. The only alternative is buying another hard drive. Which isn't a bad idea.

With the advent of USB 2.0 ports as standard equipment on newer PCs, it's possible to buy a high-speed, 200 GB external drive for well under $200 and have your main drive automatically make backups to it overnight. Some external drives come with software that will do the job with the touch of a single button.

If you don't want to invest that much money, there are dozens of programs, including Norton Ghost, Alohabob PC Backup, and System Mechanic, that make it relatively painless (although rather boring) to back up important files, or a whole drive, to a bunch of CDs or DVDs.

But you really don't have go to that much time or expense. That's because the computer and most of the stuff on your drive aren't that important. The equipment can be replaced with new hardware and the software can be reinstalled.

It's your correspondence, financial records, photos and the latest version of your Great American Novel that really count. There's no way to replace them once they're gone.

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