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updated 9/10/2004 1:51:54 PM ET 2004-09-10T17:51:54

The moment when a hurricane or other disaster is about to strike is the last time to think about the important data stored on your PC.

Yet as some areas of Florida face another evacuation order and the threat of a third powerful hurricane this season, many are inevitably thinking about protecting their worldly possessions.

When people evacuate their homes, they often take with them the things that are personally precious and irreplaceable: family photos albums top the list; maybe family letters stored in an old shoebox. Maybe there are some important documents of a financial or official nature that need to be preserved.

More often than not these days, these precious artifacts -- digital photos, home movies on digital video, a few year's worth of personal e-mail, investment account records, the manuscript for an unpublished novel -- are stored on a computer. That means that in the event of an emergency you've got an emergency plan not only for the personal safety of yourself and your family, but also for your important data. And that means preparation.

The days are gone when you could grab a floppy disk and run for the hills feeling secure that all those important ones and zeros were safe. And while you can certainly burn data to CDs or DVDs that are small, portable and light, they're not really up to the task at hand. CD-R discs can store about 700 megabytes, while DVD-Rs can hold 4.7 gigabytes. That may be enough for some people, but once you realize you have more than a few gigs worth saving, big hard drives are what you'll want.

Most consumers have computers with hard drives that hold 80 or 120 gigabytes of data. Now, not all of that is going to be precious information, but if you have a serious collection of family pictures, that could easily amount to a gigabyte or two. And who's to say a 20-gigabyte digital music collection isn't precious? You'd miss it if you lost it, right?

My advice is to get more storage than you might initially think you'll need. There are on the market dozens of portable hard drives from companies like Maxtor, Seagate, Western Digital, LaCie and Iomega to name but a few. All make external hard drives that hold up to about 300 gigabytes--for that much storage you can expect to pay about $350--which should be more than enough storage for most mainstream users.

Once you have a drive you'll want to figure out what's important and ensure not only that the important files are backed up, but that they're backed up on a regular basis if they change regularly. It's one thing to have your file of photos backed up to a drive, but it's quite another if you only do that backup once a year, and your last backup was six months ago.

Here, software can handle that for you. Symantec's Norton Ghost is one that comes to mind for Microsoft's Windows platform. It has several powerful features, including the ability to back up the entire system--programs, files, settings, everything. It also can handle incremental backups, which means that it will save the files that have been changed since the previous backup. You can also automate this process so that it happens without you having to think about it.

Another program worth considering is Dantz Retrospect, which often comes bundled with some of the hard drives I mentioned above. It runs on both Windows and Apple Computer's Macintosh computers, and you can try a basic version free for 30 days. The professional version for desktops is $129.

I've found it's smart to look in on these programs from time to time and make sure they're working as you intend them to. They can be a bit tricky to figure out at first, and they don't always behave as you think they will right from the start. Also the first backup invariably takes a long time. But when faced with the choice of losing precious files, it's time well spent.

© 2012 Forbes.com

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