Hard drive recovery tips for disaster-damaged storage

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, it's no surprise that some people are scrambling to recover data from damaged hard drives.

Chris Bross, Senior Enterprise Recovery Engineer at DriveSavers, said his company has been busy with an uptick in business, working to reclaim the data on everything from home users' single-disk drives to business-level servers. Some of the hard drives have been damaged by water, he said, but even more have been fried by power surges related to the storm.

The good news, he said, is that the majority of damaged hard drives can be recovered—albeit for a hefty price. DriveSavers charges an average of $1,000 to $1,500 to save the data from a single, consumer-grade drive, though the company is offering $500 off for severe weather victims.

DTI Data, another drive recovery service, also charges $1,000 for consumer drives if the company has to physically open it, said John Best, DTI's director of information technology. If the company can save the drive without cracking it open, the price drops to about $500. For New Yorkers, DTI has a local recovery center that accepts drop-offs.

Both companies will not charge users if their hard drives can't be recovered.

Whatever you do, don't dry it

If your hard drive is soaked in water, the worst thing you can do is attempt to dry it out.

As Bross explains, water contains contaminants such as minerals, which can spell doom for data if they bond with the platters in the drive. "When they're still floating in the liquid solution, the probability of cleaning them is much higher than if they've dried," he said.

David Mohyla, President of DTI data, agrees. He said customers can give their drives a quick rinse in fresh water, especially if they've been exposed to salt water. After that, the still-wet hard drive should be wrapped in a paper towel and placed in a Ziploc bag with as much air removed as possible. (DTI has posted a YouTube video demonstrating how to package a wet hard drive for recovery.)

"What is not a good idea is taking out to the front yard and hitting it with a blow dryer," Mohyla said.

How to check a possibly fried hard drive

Although users should not attempt to plug in a hard drive with water damage, they can check on drives that may have been hit with a power surge.

The things to watch for, Best said, are weird scratching or grinding noises when powering up a computer—if you hear these, power down and consider taking your drive to a professional firm like DriveSavers or DTI. If the computer itself is damaged, and won't even boot your drive, you can always try attaching the drive to a fresh, unharmed PC. Just be wary of attaching hardware that has burn marks, emits a burning smell, or issues odd noises when connected. In these cases, consider taking your drive to a professional instead.

How to save a wet gadget

For cell phones that have been submerged in water, the old rice in a bowl trick may help bring it back to life. Remove the battery if possible, and rinse the phone with clean water if it's been exposed to salt water. Then, submerge it under dry rice in a sealed bowl or plastic bag for several days.

A commercial variant on this trick, dubbed the Bheestie Bag, claims to be 700 percent more effective than home remedies. I haven't tried it, but it has received good reviews elsewhere.

Bheestie is offering 20 percent off in response to the hurricane, plus a free bag for every one purchased. It's also offering priority shipping, though the company's website is a bit of a mess. (It asks for a login without a clear way to sign up, and its guest login function appears to be broken.)

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