Sawyer Real Estate's office in Gulfport, Miss., was located just over 200 yards from the ocean on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi when Hurricane Katrina hit the shore.
"The rule of thumb was Hurricane Camille, in 1969. Everyone said the water would never get higher than that, and we had two inches of water in our building that time," said Lenny Sawyer, the owner of the company. "With this storm, we had six feet of water in our building."
"The entire inside was gutted," Sawyer said. "There was not a wall left inside the building. There was seaweed everywhere and debris from the harbor had floated into our building."
After workers finally reached the company's 14 PCs, three Linux servers and one Windows 2003 server -- which contained 2 terabytes of critical business data -- in the wreckage five days after the hurricane struck, Sawyer said he found seashells, sand and seaweed inside the machines when he opened them up to take out the hard drives. Similar debris was inside the drives themselves.
"All of our paper files in the office were just completely obliterated by the water," Sawyer said. "Even the little pieces of paper we could find you couldn't read."
Without the disks, he feared a painstaking task of trying to go back to all his customers -- from tenants to landlords -- and attempt to recreate files with contact information, tax identification's, rent rolls and financial information.
Then he recalled the name of a company he had seen an ad for months earlier. "It dawned on me one of these recovery companies could help us," he said. "After the storm, I was able to get an Internet connection on my cell phone, and looked them up."
Jim Reinert, senior director of software services at Ontrack Data Recovery, said the company's usual recovery process has two main steps: diagnosis and recovery.
During the diagnosis phase, damaged drives are taken to Ontrack's "clean room" where they are cleaned, if necessary, and then made to spin again via a number of what Reinert called "proprietary tricks."
He wouldn't specify all the ways Ontrack has of making damaged hard drives talk, but said they included replacing hardware components like heads. The important thing, Reinert said, was to get the drive to spin long enough to get a copy of the data. Then, Ontrack sends the customer a list of the files it can recover, along with a quality prognosis for each file, ranging from "good" to "partial."
The second phase of the process is to recover the files from the copies made in the "clean room." Reinert said that Ontrack was offering the diagnosis phase, normally priced at $100 per drive, free to Katrina victims. The recovery phase, typically $1,000 or more per drive, would be given a "disaster discount."
The company is also sending hurricane victims plastic transport boxes that will get drives to the Minnesota-based Ontrack in the best condition possible, at no charge.
Sawyer didn't have time for that. "I packed the drives into a Styrofoam cooler and another box, and shipped them up to Minnesota," he said. "A couple of days later, they told me they could get almost all of my files back."
According to Reinert, stories like Sawyer's are more common than most people think. "Never assume a drive is unrecoverable, no matter what it has been through," is his advice. "Just because it's in really bad shape doesn't indicate the extent of its recoverability."
Reinert said Ontrack started getting calls even before the storm hit, from companies that had divisions in the area, asking questions proactively about how to protect and recover drives. He said that since the storm they have been "fielding multiple calls daily and starting to receive multiple jobs daily," from cases like Sawyer's. He estimated Ontrack could get anywhere from hundreds to thousands of recovery jobs from storm victims.
"Some companies had enough advance warning to make backups, but were doubly affected -- both their primary computers and backups were both damaged just because of the size of the storm," Reinert said.