Back Home, Back-up

Or, "How I learned to start worrying and love back-ups".

The 8th January 2005 began like any other Saturday, I hadn't quite woken up, and in the distance I could hear a cell phone ringing. My head cleared and I realized it was mine; I must have left it downstairs last night. I thought about letting it ring, I knew the timing pretty well, so I knew it would inevitably stop ringing seconds before I could find and answer it. For some reason, I got out of bed and headed downstairs.

In hindsight I could tell you that it felt a little different walking downstairs, maybe colder, or maybe it seemed slightly darker than usual, but I was too sleepy to notice. It's only when I stepped off the last stair into the room that I finally woke up.

My foot was cold all of a sudden. "No, wait, it’s wet. Why is my foot wet?" I clearly remember that thought going through my head, then lifting my foot up and down a little to make sure, before opening the curtain and looking outside. The street and parking lot outside my house looked like a river, and my head was alive with expletives. At some point I must have called out to my wife, because she came downstairs to find out what was going on.

It didn’t take long to see the significance of the fact that the flood water outside was already higher than the water in the house, it was obviously going to get deeper inside. We quickly put everything downstairs into some basic order of priority (split by current height!) and started trying to rescue it.

The first item on my list was my PC. It was sitting on the floor, and the hard disk positioning in those particular Dell cases was very low to the ground. I reached over my desk, grabbed hold of the PC, and pulled it up out of the water. Water poured out of the case as it tilted, so I knew it was probably already too late. There was no time to dwell on it though, the water level was rising steadily and we had other things to save. I just carried it over to the stairs and put it out of further harm's way.

We managed to make about 3 trips each to our back room, grabbing things like wallets and passports and moving them to the stairs, before the water level reached well above the knee. It was hard to make any more trips because of the cold, but I dried off my legs to warm up, and tried again. It was too late, the water was approaching waist height, everything we had was either floating or submerged, and we just had to accept that we’d probably saved everything we could. We took everything we had gathered on the staircase upstairs, and waited. There wasn't really anything we could do, we were too shocked to really comprehend what was happening, and we were starting to worry about the fumes from the water. There was a strong smell of fuel from all the cars parked nearby, and it was starting to make me feel weird, opening all the windows helped a little.

The views from those windows were amazing, we were completely surrounded by water, and there were no people or traffic to be seen. I realized that the main roads into and out of the city centre would be blocked by the water. At some point, a fireman waded/swam along our street checking we were all okay. The fire station itself was flooded too (along with the police station, and many other areas of the city), but they were working on getting some boats to get us out. Over time, a few people gathered on higher ground to watch or take photos.

At some point I got back to my PC, I didn’t have a screwdriver, but managed to remove the hard disk with a paperclip or something that I had lying around. I dried it off, and wrapped it up so I could take it with me when I had to leave. We had it packed into a duffel bag of clothes until we watched the first rescue. There was a motorized boat, and row boat. The current from the river was too strong to place a ladder to climb down, so we just had to hang on tight and kind of shimmy down the wall into the fireman’s arms. Unsure if we'd be able to take a bag, or what would happen to it, I decided to keep the soggy hard disk in my coat pocket.

We were rescued and rowed to safety no more than four hours after we had woken up that morning. In that short time we’d lost almost everything we had, our lives for the immediate future had been changed completely, and the water seemed to have peaked at around six foot inside the house. Someone snapped a cool picture of my wife’s rescue (you might have seen it already on my personal blog), but although I’ve heard there’s a video of mine, I’ve never seen it.

Fortunately my parents lived outside the flood zone and were happy to accommodate us, so we trekked to an accessible part of the city, where they picked us up and drove us to our new temporary home. I used to keep all my shoes downstairs, so I made that painful trek in a pair of my wife’s boots... hence the lesson I learned last year "don't keep all your shoes in the same place"; trust me on that one, you really don't need to learn that lesson yourself!

The next week was a bit of a whirlwind, we waited for power to be restored to the region, and for the water to recede. We showed a reporter around our wrecked home on live TV, and we started trying to salvage what we could. I didn’t have the time or equipment to check my hard disk, so it just sat draining on a pile of tissues. In quiet moments I wondered if it would work, and how much I would be able to recover from a USB memory stick if it didn’t. I found a back-up CD in the muddy remains of the flood, so I wondered how recent and complete that might be too. I couldn’t believe I’d been so stupid... I should have known instantly how much data I had lost, and how to restore everything else. At the end of that week, we had done everything we needed to do at the house, so I had time to buy a new PC and prepared to find out the extent of the damage.

I swapped in the flooded hard disk, and anxiously turned on the PC. The BIOS detected the disk, but then nothing. It was dead, and it wasn’t detected at all when I tried again. In a way I was devastated, but I’d been expecting as much. I took the disk out, and started to look into other options. The back-ups I had didn’t amount to a whole lot, but at least my software was safe, except for the last week or so of code. I read online about data recovery services and advice, made a few initial enquiries, and decided it was time to sleep on it.

Either the next day or a couple of days later, I figured I’d give the disk another go. I’d left it near the fire (not too near!), and the extra heat must have helped, because it worked perfectly. I didn’t know what to think... I’d had a major scare, I was sure I’d lost it, and now it was all there working perfectly. I was scared to turn the PC off, I just wanted to write everything out to CD right away, but for some reason I couldn’t. Something didn’t work, but I can’t remember what. I just remember being insanely happy, telling my wife not to touch anything, and rushing out to PC World or Staples to buy something. Whatever it was I needed, I got it, and before long I was back up and running on the new PC without any loss of data.

And that was it, I’d learned my lesson about back-ups. That week I spent not knowing, and that day or so I spent thinking the worst were more than enough to reform me.

If there was any danger of me not learning my lesson, because let’s face it, I got away with it, there was another factor to seal the deal. Remember the phone call? At some point my wife did answer the phone. My brother, who was going through exactly the same thing a couple of houses away, had called my parents, and they were calling to tell us about the flood. The landlines were all dead, along with all the power, so that phone was the last line of communication we had. Had I not got up to answer that call, about 30 minutes later the phone would have been underwater too, along with almost everything else we managed to save. Deciding not to get up, which I’m sure I’ve done many times before, would have made a bad situation infinitely worse. I owe my data’s survival to a snap decision to get out of bed (or to my brother’s decision to sleep downstairs the night before; he woke up when he heard the first water bubbling under his front door). I don’t want to be in a position where I have so little control of my data ever again.

We recently moved back in after about 16 months negotiating and waiting for repairs, and this is my first Codesnipers post from the comfort of my own home. The flood definitely changed the course of my life... who knows whether I would have started a blog, or started contributing here without it. I always thought that the first post back here should be dedicated to the moment that probably indirectly started it all.


Congrats on getting back into your place. What caused the flood? Was it a bad storm, rain, or a dam?

One of the joys of our place is that we're on the middle of three floors... no roof, no basement, and only about 6 feet above the ground.

How high's the water, papa? Said it's 8 foot high and risin'

Incredible post; thanks for sharing the story! Just to clarify, you live on the other side of the pond, right? So this wasn't a New Orleans story, correct?

I loved the part about how when it finally did work you knew that no one should touch it! It was like so near to being jinxed that a wayward kitty could have done it in with a playful bat of a paw. I can just see your hands shaking as you came back with another computer and hooked the two up to download the data - what sweet relief when it was finally all transferred. Were you alone in your triumph, or did others appreciate the comedy?

A little bit of everything

Thanks for the kind words, guys, I hoped someone would enjoy the read.

Yeah, it wasn't a New Orleans story, we're in the north of England, our flood came just a week or two after the quake in Asia. Hopefully it was in some small way related (the butterfly effect!), and not something we'll see happening again any time soon.

There was really heavy rainfall further up the river the night before, I guess it just couldn't get through the city quickly enough. I seem to remember poor drainage was mentioned, and building on flood plains, but it was probably a combination of everything. Flooding wasn't something I'd ever worried about, I felt like we were far enough away from the river, and I'd never seen or heard of anything like this before. Now I'm home, I'm wondering how it's going to feel on the first night of really heavy rainfall... I'm thinking it might be a sleepless one.

There were plenty of people worse off than us (in our flood and in the other floods around the world), but this has been the dominant factor in our lives for so long now, we're just really relieved to get back home and start thinking about having a normal life again. We lost a lot of stuff, but that can almost all be replaced, all the lost time was the hardest part.

When the disk started working, I think my wife was too relieved (probably even more than I was) to see the funny side of my antics. I can't tell you how good it felt when the last CD finished burning and popped out of the drive.