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ATPM 9.10
October 2003





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The Bottom Line

by Mary E. Tyler,

Are You Ready for a Disaster?

At 4:04 AM on November 4, 1997, I woke to a curious buzzing sound. I got out of bed, took one step, “what is that—” and somewhere between the first step and my foot hitting the floor the second time, I finished the thought, “*^)&%#@($^&*, my house is on fire!” I opened the bedroom door and stared as a gout of flame engulfed my home office. Faulty wiring in the computer monitor had caught fire and filled the house with smoke, banishing the darkness with the eerie orange of flame.

What wasn’t destroyed by the fire was soaked putting out the blaze. There was $43,000 in damage. It was ten weeks before we could live in the house again. The fire, water, smoke, and ensuing chaos obliterated my fledgling Web design business. After an experience like that, you would think I’d have learned my lesson…

In the wake of Hurricane Isabel (I live near the Virginia coast), it became really clear to me just how unprepared I was for any sort of disruptive event, much less a natural disaster. As it was, we went without power for several days and I broke the cardinal rule of journalism. I missed a deadline. Fortunately, the editors here at ATPM are kind. At any rate, here are a few tips on preparing your TOHO (not just your Mac) for a disaster, natural or otherwise.


Be a Switcher

That’s right, switch off your monitor every night. Modern monitors are designed to go into standby mode when the connected computer turns off. My monitor was in standby when the switch shorted. Smoke, then flames, then disaster—all because I didn’t turn the monitor off when I shut down. Now, I switch it off whenever I’m not at the computer.

Up, Up and Away

If you live in a flood-prone area, keep your tower on the desk top, not on the floor. Better yet, keep it on the second floor of your house if you have one—or move it there if you’re expecting flooding.

If you can, don’t keep the tower right next to the monitor since that is a likely spot for a fire to start. My hard drive escaped almost unscathed because I set the tower catty-corner to the monitor, almost two feet away, instead of side by side. Yes, a monitor catching fire spontaneously is unlikely, but it does happen.


Insure, Insure, Insure…

Your home owner’s (or renter’s) insurance doesn’t cover your business property. You need two kinds of insurance: business property and business interruption. Business property insurance will cover your business’s physical assets, hardware, and software. Make sure to specify replacement cost, so that they don’t depreciate the value of your computer before they pay. Business interruption insurance will cover lost income, and possibly even the loss of your business should you be completely unable to operate.

You can get these sorts of policies from your regular insurer, as a rider on your homeowner’s policy and even from a stand-alone company like SafeWare. Your business policy may already include this coverage in addition to things like liability and errors and omissions. Check with your agent for details.

Beep Beeep Beep Beep…

Backup your data regularly. Before the fire, it had been an age since I backed up my sensitive data. I was very, very lucky that the hard drive survived. Even worse, I kept ten years of data backed up to Zip disks on my desk because it was convenient. It’s only by the grace of the computer gods that I was able to save the data. The cases were partially melted.

Lesson here: it’s important not only to keep backups, but also to keep them somewhere that is not near your computer. Burn three copies. Keep one by your desk for convenience. Keep a second in another part of the house. Keep a third off site. A records storage company is a good choice. Don’t place backups or other important papers in a safe deposit box at the bank. If you are killed it can take years to get into a safe deposit box, even if you have a will.

Yes, it is tedious and time consuming to backup and take the copies to various places. Do it anyway.

Keep Records

After the fire, it took weeks of sifting through sooty software boxes and old receipts to find the serial numbers for all the computer equipment I lost—$25,000 worth of software and hardware. The list was six pages long. This goes double for professional books. I have shelves of programming books which cost $50 a pop. The last thing I wanted to do after a fire was sit paging through sodden, disintegrating, smoky books, looking for ISBN numbers. That list was another three pages.

It would have been so much easier if I’d recorded titles, serial/ISBN numbers, and manufacturer’s contact and tech support information every time I bought software, hardware, or a new book. Print out a hard copy when you add new items and put it in your fire safe box along with your insurance papers.

You Can Take It With You

Have an evacuation plan for your equipment as well as for your family. There is nothing that says that when you’re running from a hurricane, you can’t stick your Mac’s tower in the corner of the car. You can certainly grab your laptop. Leave the cords and peripherals behind if you’re in a hurry. This is a biggie in any disaster, as fire, flood, and even smoke can FUBAR your Mac.

You’ll also want all your important papers in a fire safe box in a sealed plastic bag. Keep it by the door so that you can grab it on your way out. Remember to lock the box at all times. Dumb as it may sound and pain though it may be, the box can fall, and if it opens, everything inside it burns.


Government Help

If there has been a bone fide nationally declared disaster, FEMA will open a local field office. If you are uninsured or under-insured, you may be able to make a claim for reimbursement of your losses and expenses. Usually the Small Business Administration sets up a table to help business owners. Also, don’t forget that you can write off some losses on your taxes. It’s a small comfort, I know.

Get a Charge Out of Your Car

Need to recharge your laptop when the power’s out? Go for a car ride. You don’t have to buy a $179 car plug for your laptop. Hit the local “guy-toy” store and pick up a small DC inverter. Mine ran about $25 at Northern Tools and provides two three-prong receptacles. It works great for charging my laptop and even powers the PlayStation when we’re on a long car trip.

Fewer Than 12 Steps to Recovery

Whether or not to attempt to copy off the data yourself is a hard choice. You can save money if you’re successful, but you can make major havoc if you’re not. If you can start up the computer, copy your important data ASAP. Even if the drive appears sound, have it replaced. Smoke can damage the drive’s seals over time. It could be two years down the line before it goes belly up. And of course, if the hardware is FUBAR, leave it to the professionals. To find a disk recovery service, look in the back of a Mac magazine. There are always ads.

A pro like DriveSavers (recovering Mac data since 1985) has all sorts of proprietary software to recovery data. They can literally take the drive apart if necessary. Often, they can recover a drive in 48 hours, so if you have something time sensitive, that’s the way to go. Iomega also offers a recovery service for media from their drives.

Recovering a hard disk is pricey. John Christopher, a Data Recovery Engineer at the venerable DriveSavers said, “The average price of a drive recovery is about $1000. The larger the physical capacity of the drive and the faster the turnaround, the more expensive the recovery is.” There are other less expensive services, but I’d be very careful to choose one with extensive Mac experience. The good news is that your insurance should pay for the recovery. You may have to educate your adjuster, because he probably won’t know that data recovery is even possible.

Do-It-Yourself Clean Up

If you can clean up your office somewhat without losing your mind or endangering your health, do it. Disaster cleaning companies have a job to do—as quickly as possible. They will wipe, wash, and pack your belongings efficiently. They will not pay any attention to what they put in which box. Things can go astray and get separated. For example, each of the five pieces of my kitchen stand mixer (OK, so it’s not part of my Mac, use your imagination) ended up in a different box. It took me five years to find everything.

Don’t Be Stupid

Despite the best laid plans of mice and men, disaster does sometimes strike. I don’t need to tell you how high the stakes are in a TOHO. You could lose a lot more than your business. You could lose everything you own, but it’s more important to evacuate yourself and your family from a burning building than it is to grab your laptop. The Bottom Line is that your business can survive a disaster, but not if you’re dead. Getting out alive is number one.


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Reader Comments (2)

anonymous · October 2, 2003 - 12:18 EST #1
Don't forget that external firewire drives are also useful for the quick exit plan. Just be sure to have your data backed up to them as well as to your regular off-site storage. A drive failure is much more likely to happen than a fire and you can get back in business much quicker.
RF System Lab · November 8, 2010 - 17:22 EST #2
Thank you for these tips. Sometimes we think we're invincible, but it's great to be reminded to take all these safety precautions.

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