The rescue effort began two days after the city flooded, and interim technology manager Rajeev Jain entered the building not knowing what to expect. The ground floor of the New Orleans school system headquarters was under three inches of water, and when he headed upstairs, he saw that the fourth-floor ceiling was damaged and leaking.
Jain hailed police to sledgehammer through a locked door. He found what he was looking for in a storage closet: 170 dry and apparently undamaged computer backup tapes storing recently updated payroll records and other critical financial information.
Working from an International Business Machines Corp. data recovery center in New York, Jain and colleagues from Alvarez & Marsal Business Consulting LLC were able to recreate the school district's computer system from afar. Last week the school system resumed issuing paychecks to New Orleans teachers.
As the Gulf Coast cleans up after Hurricane Katrina, computer consultants, data recovery companies, and government and business officials say the area was apparently spared the worst when it comes to the condition of the computer records and backup systems.
Government institutions and large companies generally had adequate backup systems in place and data-recovery contracts with firms such as IBM to help rescue damaged data tapes and rebuild software systems. The best-prepared had backup files stored on computers outside the hurricane zone.
"I don't know of any situation we're dealing with ... right now that the data is not recoverable," said Don DeMarco, general manager for IBM's business continuity and recovery sector.
Disaster recovery has become a $6 billion share of the computer industry as companies and governments have taken to heart the lessons of lightning strikes, floods and other incidents, such as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Unlike physical assets such as a building or inventory, lost information can be impossible to replace and can make it nearly impossible for a business to reopen.
Major companies such as IBM and SunGard Data Systems Inc. have entire corporate campuses devoted to data recovery. Concerns about file protection have even shaped government decisions about where to put offices. In May, the Agriculture Department, for example, said it planned to move the payroll and other operations of its National Finance Center from New Orleans to Kansas City, Mo.
The agency noted in announcing the move that computer operations in New Orleans "have significant exposure to risk" — and indeed the facility's operations had to be shifted to off-site backup locations after the hurricane.
Not everybody was protected.
Kyle Mickelson, who runs a computer repair and support business in Gulfport, Miss., said that a number of his clients did not have backup accounting or customer records and lost all that information in the storm. He has also taken in dozens of water-damaged computers and hasn't been able to recover data from any of them.
Others who thought they had made adequate precautions found that the magnitude of Katrina overwhelmed even the best planning.
Jacqueline Mae Goldberg, a personal injury lawyer who practiced in New Orleans, said she created backup files and stored them at her home. In an e-mail she said both places were wrecked by the storm.
"We've had a number of calls from companies in utter chaos," said Mike Sullivan, a senior vice president of VeriCenter Inc., a Texas firm that does data storage and backup. "They're at risk of losing their business, especially small and mid-sized companies."
The extent of such damage will take time to assess. Those businesses that did have backup and emergency plans sometimes found that it not only protected their data, but also kept them operating throughout the hurricane and its aftermath.
SCP Pool Corp., a New Orleans-based wholesaler of pool supplies, was able to relocate its corporate headquarters to VeriCenter's Dallas offices, where critical company information was backed up. As a result, there was no significant disruption to the delivery and distribution of its products from 200 centers around the country, said technology director Tim Babco.