When disaster strikes and every second counts, there's rarely time to sift through file cabinets for insurance policies or flip through photo albums to grab irreplaceable pictures.
As folks along the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast are discovering, important documents and precious items such as family photos that were left behind during a frantic escape now may be lost forever.
It doesn't have to be that way.
Digital technology has evolved in recent years so that almost anything that can go on a computer can be preserved and stored remotely -- whether it's on the Web or an external hard drive that can be whisked away at a moment's notice. And with the necessary tools -- a scanner, a Web connection or even a spool of blank CDs -- all coming down in price, it has become more affordable, though still time-consuming, to prepare for a hurricane, flooded basement or even a nasty computer virus.
That's an idea that Maxtor Corp., Seagate Technology LLC and other digital storage companies are pushing. Silicon Valley-based Maxtor, for example, has created a list of tips for backing up everything from music to tax returns to an external drive that's usually no bigger than a hardback book.
"We got a dozen calls from people who grabbed [their hard drives] before they left" to flee Hurricane Katrina, said Stacey Lund, vice president of marketing for Maxtor.
Unlike the smaller-capacity blank CDs, DVDs and keychain-sized flash drives, external hard drives offer far more capacity -- from 40 to 500 gigabytes -- and many can be set to automatically back up files at regular intervals, Lund said.
CDs with important documents burned on them offer a bonus: They can be duplicated multiple times, allowing family members or friends who live in other areas to store an extra copy for you.
A more convenient -- though somewhat pricey -- option for preserving important files is an online storage service, which allows users to upload important documents to the Internet and retrieve them from any Web-connected computer.
Mac users, for example, can pay $100 annually for a service called .mac, which offers 250 megabytes of storage. Yahoo members receive a small amount of free space and can upgrade to have more room in their Internet briefcase -- up to 100 megabytes for $35 per year. And services such as Pro Softnet Corp.'s IBackup and Xdrive, which was acquired by Dulles-based America Online Inc. last month, sell five gigabytes of storage for $10 per month and 25 gigabytes for $100 per month.
By comparison, external hard drives can cost $100 to $400, depending on the capacity.
But not all records and documents need to be backed up.
Consumers who bank online, for example, can usually access their monthly statements on the Web. A growing number of utilities and credit card companies allow their customers to view their statements online. And photo sites such as Snapfish.com, Shutterfly.com and Yahoo photos allow customers to upload digital photos to the Web.
Likewise, real estate agents and insurance brokers, as well as local government agencies, usually keep copies of their clients' documents. But that does no good if their offices also are damaged.
Hard-drive companies such as Maxtor and Seagate have been pushing consumers to back up their data so they'll suffer less if a computer virus hits. But the same rules apply to natural disasters or even isolated incidents such as fires or flooding.
"As people become more comfortable with a very digitized lifestyle, I think there's going to be a realization that that's something they're going to want" in digital form, Seagate spokesman John Paulsen said.
Consumers already understand the importance of backing up their data: According to market research firm IDC, nearly 70 percent of consumer PC users are concerned about viruses. But fewer than 25 percent back up their data on a weekly basis.
"They know they're supposed to, and they don't," said David Reinsel, director of storage research at IDC.