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Heading out the door in an emergency that might destroy your home, what do you grab? And will it be enough?

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This is Leo Notenboom for

The big news in the United States this week has been the wildfires in southern California. At least two friends of mine have had to evacuate their homes, though fortunately they were able to return within just a few days.

The question people ask when faced with suddenly having to leave their home is fairly simple: what do I take? With a bit of warning you might have an hour or two. If your house is on fire you might have precious few seconds or none at all. What would you grab as you ran out the door?

It all got me to thinking about how my own "running out the door" strategy actually falls short with respect to some of my digital data.

As I've mentioned before, I have a fairly complex backup strategy that among other things replicates a lot of information among the 8 or so computers that we have here at home. In theory any one of them could just up and die and while it'd be an inconvenience and perhaps at most one day's worth of data loss, that's all it would be.

"... you might have precious few seconds or none at all."

Grabbing my laptop on the way out the door though, as I see myself doing in response to a catastrophe, is very different. Instead of having a single machine that dies, this scenario is that only a single machine survives.

That single machine better have the important stuff on it.

That realization will have me making two changes to my strategy:

  • The laptop will take on a higher profile in my nightly backups. I'll be making sure that even more of my important files are replicated to it.

  • My off-site backup also takes on a higher profile as well. Be it physically carrying external hard drives around, or backing up encrypted collections of critical files to the Ask Leo! server, this is the real safety net if I can't even grab the laptop.

Now, I've talked only about what I plan to do rather than making concrete suggestions for you simply because everyone's situation is very different. It might already be enough for you to simply grab an external USB drive with all your pictures and email on the way out the door. Or not.

Or perhaps you haven't considered this scenario at all yet.

At a minimum, you want to make sure that you do have at least a basic backup plan in place - the kind of plan that allows you to recover from, say, a total hard drive failure. The simplest thing to do then is to make sure that the backup you create is on something that's easily picked up as you leave your home in an emergency.

Be it wildfires, earthquakes, tsunamis, a simple house fire, or other disaster, it's something that is most definitely is worth thinking about and planning for.

I'd love to hear what you think. Visit and enter 11944 in the go to article number box to access the show notes, the transcript and to leave me a comment. While you're there, browse the hundreds of technical questions and answers on the site.

Till next time, I'm Leo Notenboom, for

Article C3194 - October 27, 2007 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

October 28, 2007 4:28 PM

I have a single 500GB portable hard drive sitting right next to my gaming rig. This thing gets nightly backups of all 3 of my systems + my laptop and contains all my important CD/DVD software images that I NEED as well as pictures and movies..

I can easily grab the drive, stick it in my laptop back which is right next to my rig w/ my laptop, and run.. If I have say, 45 more seconds, I can probably turn my rig off, unplug everything, and grab it by the handle and be on my way :)..

October 31, 2007 5:58 AM

I've been thinking about this for a while now, actually. It's all very well having a great big box of DVD backups - but they're not exactly portable. I do have a backup drive, but I reckon that in an emergency (and living in South Africa, that emergency could be caused by the sudden appearance of heavily armed, murderous robbers) I wouldn't grab it. So the only option for me is to do what I do at work - have two backup drives and keep one offsite. Better get that organised...

November 2, 2007 6:29 PM

Speaking from experience, quite frankly the last thing on my mind was pictures. I almost couldn't find my 2-year-old in my 2 story house fire. So I lost everything.

I probably would grab my ferrets since my backup pictures and everything are located on the web. If I lose my external backup that Acronis made, I still have a web backup.

Bob Seeley
November 2, 2007 7:06 PM

Speaking of "What would you take?", I've got quit a few installation CDs for the various programs I use, and I'm thinking that in an emergency there's no way I'd have time to grab them and put them in a box or something while heading for the door. So I have an idea I'd like to get your opinion on: I have an external usb hard drive that has gobs of space on it. Do you think it'd be a viable idea to create iso image files of those installation disks and put them on my external drive? Thanks for your views on this idea.

David Cary
November 2, 2007 9:02 PM

Article 11944 "What would you take".
We were faced with this issue when Hurricane Rita was coming to visit. But we were facing rising water, or water coming in through tree holes and blown out walls, not fire. Hopefully our house would not be struck by a tornado, which would have the effect of fire.
All I have is a desktop, with Old Big 17" Monitor. So I just took the TOWER by itself, and a couple of boxes of PICTURES. Big DOG had to come, of course.
I'm not a geek, and I don't have a lot of programs or documents, maybe the normal stuff, but my love is all my family pictures. Digital cameras are a blessing and a curse when it comes to VOLUME! So I try to upload what I can to an online gallery. Buying prints or CD's of the albums would be relatively worth the huge expense.

But this question does boil down your life to what will fit in your car, does it not? Your family, some pets, photos, legal documents.

A laptop would have been so nice...

Use of a web email system also allows you to save important emails online, rather than only in your computer.

I appreciate your column and the thoughtful way you respond to questions.

Doug Woodall
November 3, 2007 9:50 AM

My Laptop and our Dog!

Ken Crook
November 3, 2007 10:08 PM

I have experience with this scenario. I once lived in an apartment in Oakland, California in an area where if you heard a fire engine siren it might be your building on fire. I developed a plan to keep copies of stuff I would not want to lose off site and have my wallet and checkbook readily available to grab as I ran for the door.
I now live in San Jose, California which is a safer place, but I still keep the same thinking, now adding in my computer. I still keep copies of stuff I would not want to lose off site, including a recent copy of my computers "MyDocuments" folder where I keep all my computer stuff. If my home was destroyed by fire/earthquake/tsunami I would have to buy a replacement computer where I could just replace the "MyDocuments" folder and be recovered.

Sara Shadbolt
November 4, 2007 8:58 PM

I backup regularly. I have two usb storage devices, one at home and one in my safety deposit box, which I rotate every month. So even if I were not home when the disaster occurred, I would still have the previous month's backup.
I wouldn't be able to carry my laptop because I would be too busy saving 4 boxes of scrapbooks (!!)that represent all my memories of my children growing up (pre-computers, of course..)

Leo A. Notenboom
November 5, 2007 2:00 PM

Hash: SHA1

While *technically* its probably a violation of copyright or the license or
some such, it seems line a good idea to me.


Version: GnuPG v1.4.7 (MingW32)


Carl R. Goodwin
November 6, 2007 7:56 PM

I've been thinking of this lately too. I have all my data on a separate USB drive, so it should be simple enough to take all the "valuable stuff" if need arises. I also copy all those files to my laptop's external drive too. Double redundancy. :)

Susan James
November 9, 2007 6:37 PM

re: 11944
I have the PW from Roboform on the jump drives, bank info, and a few other important files. The tax, receipts for House, family pictures, and financial papers are scanned and put on the archival (3rd) HD of my PC. When I got enough, I burned them to CD-R's and stored in the safe edeposit box at bank. I now store on the very large jump drives and put them in the safe deposit box at bank as the smaller box is much cheaper. If I have enough time, after getting the 3 corgis, 1 Eskimo dog, and husband out, I'd grab the laptop and my purse (with the recent jump drive). The important stuff are on the jump drives and at the bank. I update monthly. All that would be lost then would lower priority saves and perhaps some recent scans.

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