For school district IT personnel from coast to coast, the recent destruction wrought by hurricanes Katrina and Rita has driven home the importance of backing up school data.

School systems in the paths of these hurricanes have to worry not only about rebuilding their school buildings and their IT infrastructures, but they also must recreate or recover billions of bits of data from computers that were damaged in the storms or the subsequent flooding. Though statewide databases containing information about students in Louisiana and Mississippi are helping educators in the affected areas piece together their computer records, experts say the storms offer important lessons for school leaders nationwide.

Natural disasters on par with Hurricane Katrina are fairly rare, but every school should protect its essential data before an emergency strikes, and school leaders should know what to do with these data when an emergency is imminent, said Tim Margeson, the general manager of CBL Data Recovery Technologies Inc. CBL specializes in retrieving information from failed hard drives in laptops, desktop computers, data servers, and other data storage systems.

“Schools should protect their data from even the smallest of emergency situations,” Margeson said. He recommends that school leaders purchase backup software and set up networks to create a network backup tape. School IT departments would use the backup software at a particular time (it’s best to do it in the evening or at night), select which computers will have data backed up, and then allow the software to copy these data automatically onto a backup medium, such as a DVD or backup tape. School IT staff should know how to perform this procedure, he said.

If computers are damaged and the school has no data backups, the computers can be sent to a company such as CBL to retrieve the data. That process generally takes anywhere from three to five days, depending on the extent of the damage.

“Schools really have to assess the information stored on their computers and determine how important those data are,” Margeson said. “If it’s something they can’t live without, then a data backup system needs to be in place.”

Schools should set up a procedure for backing up their data. It’s better to back up data routinely, Margeson said, because having multiple backup tapes stored off campus makes it more likely that much of a school’s data can be saved. If your most recent backup tape is destroyed somehow, but if you have another month-old tape stored off-site, then you’re only missing a month’s worth of data, he pointed out.

Louisiana’s statewide database containing basic student and teacher information was not damaged in the storm. “A lot of districts have lost physical records, but lots of that information was transferred to the state,” said a state education department spokeswoman. Most of this basic information, including student transcripts, survived. Teacher certification records were kept in the system, and this teacher information reportedly has eased the transfer of displaced teachers to new school districts.

The Mississippi Department of Education also has a uniform online system for collecting and storing student data, called the Mississippi Student Information System (MSIS). This statewide system is based in Jackson, Miss., said Kameron Ball, director of federal programs for the Rankin County School District in Brandon, Miss. Ball is the former educational technology director for Mississippi’s education department.

Student records, grades, class schedules, and other vital information can be accessed at the state level. “We have this information that otherwise would have washed out to sea with the storm surge,” Ball said.

Backup tapes have proven useful for fulfilling payroll in the affected areas. Alvarez and Marsal Business Consulting LLC, a restructuring firm, recovered backup tapes containing payroll information for New Orleans public school employees. New Orleans teachers, despite being evacuated and spread out throughout the country, were able to access their payroll payments in mid-September.

Data backup companies also have proven useful in past natural disasters and other emergency situations.

When Hurricane Ivan went through Grand Cayman Island in September 2004, the storm destroyed the building that housed the servers for the island’s 11 schools. Century Consultants Ltd., a New Jersey-based student information management software company, has provided the island with software since 1999. Century Consultants located a data backup CD created by a Grand Cayman staff member and supplied school officials with a link to its New Jersey server, which gave island officials access to critical student data.

Once internet access was back up, local officials reportedly were able to use these data–which contained recently updated student demographic information–to reunite families that had been scattered to shelters during the storm.

Maxtor Corp., a California-based data backup solutions provider, declared June 2005 as National Backup Awareness Month and recommended important steps to safeguard computer data.

Individuals, schools, businesses, and other organizations all should develop a data backup schedule, Maxtor said. This schedule will differ according to each organization’s needs. “Having a backup schedule is important, because you never know when something might happen and wipe out your data,” said Ben Castro, senior manager for Maxtor’s branded products group.

With the market for personal digital files such as photos and music growing, data backup is becoming increasingly important for individuals as well as businesses and schools, Castro said. Backing up all data, and not just selecting certain files, is important because computer users need to be able to restore their complete computer if a virus or other emergency hits, he added.

Regardless of the form of backup, having an off-site data backup increases the chances that data can be recovered in the event of a disaster or emergency. Castro recommends having two backups, keeping one on site and the other off-site. Rotating the backups keeps both current and leaves an extra available if the on-site backup is destroyed.

Other companies, such as DriveSavers Data Recovery Inc., have compiled lists of important tips on how to salvage computer data after a blackout. As power is restored, fluctuations occur that can damage computers, hard drives, and the data they hold. This kind of situation easily could have occurred to any number of computers in the areas affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

DriveSavers advises against turning computers on as soon as power is restored. Power fluctuations could continue for minutes, hours, or even days, depending on the severity of the situation, and these fluctuations could damage a computer’s hard drive and data. If power remains off, it is best to turn off computers, printers, and any other devices that might have been running before power was lost. Unplugging computers will protect them from power spikes or surges that usually occur when power returns.

Once an area’s power is restored and it seems safe to switch computers back on, it might be necessary to use a disk utility program to repair damage done to the hard drive’s directory structure–this is essentially the hard drive’s “table of contents.” Some operating systems include these utility programs; Microsoft ScanDisk, Apple’s First Aid, or a third-party program such as Symantec’s Norton Utilities all can repair damage.

Consistently creating backups for computer data and creating multiple backup tapes will ensure that most, if not all, of a school’s sensitive data are recoverable in an emergency situation.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


CBL Data Recovery Technologies Inc.

Century Consultants Ltd.

Maxtor Corp.

DriveSavers Data Recovery Inc.