30 January 2011

Natural Disasters and Family History

If a natural disaster occurred today, would your family history records survive?

In Hurricane Katrina and the Canberra bush fires, three of my clients lost everything. I was able to send replacement copies of my reports, plus the genealogical data and certificates that accompanied their requests - but many professional genealogists do not keep client files for very long.

During the past month, five Australia States have been affected by catastrophic floods, and an 'inland tsunami' destroyed one small town. Several other towns were hastily evacuated by helicopter. 75% of Queensland (an area larger than Texas) has been declared a Disaster Area. Now three cyclones (one potentially a Category 5) are expected to cross the coast in Queensland and Western Australia within five days. Severe weather events are becoming more frequent, and they are occurring in areas that have not traditionally been at risk. If you live in an area where bush fires, cyclones, hurricanes or tornadoes are common, you may be ready. The rest of us? Maybe not.

In the recent floods, electricity and mobile phone towers went out very early in some areas. Many people could not be warned to evacuate because they did not have a standard (non-cordless) telephone or a battery-operated radio. (Let that be a lessen to us all!) In pouring rain, with flood waters approaching Brisbane, I helped a friend prepare to move some of her belongings to storage on high ground. She has 10,000 books. Where to start packing?! That story had a happy ending, but it certainly made me think.

I live a long way from the river, but a major flood extends into large creeks, which could flow back into the small creek behind my house. If local heavy rain had continued, creeks would have been full before the flood peak arrived, and I might have had water through my house. As a precaution, I loaded the car with important personal and business documents, family history folders and notebooks, photos, laptop computer, data backups, mobile phone and charger, torch, radio, spare batteries, clothes, toiletries, medications, sheets, towel, pillow, blanket, and some food and water. Inside the house I lifted as many things as possible onto benches and tables.

It turned out to be total overkill, but it was good practice. For future reference, I have made a list (in order of priority) of other things that I would try to save if I had time. High on my list would be irreplaceable mementos from my travels (handcrafted wooden and pottery miniatures) and the beautiful beefwood fruit bowl, magazine rack, picture frames, coffee tables and book cases that my father made from timber he felled on the grazing property where I grew up.

Many Web sites have advice on disaster preparedness. As a family historian, I have some additional comments:
  • Think about what is stored where. Should items in lower shelves and drawers be moved higher?
  • If you only had minutes to grab books, could you find the ones you treasure most?
  • Some disasters wipe out an entire town. Store one electronic backup locally and another much further away, preferably interstate.
  • If you have a free account with Google, Yahoo, Hotmail etc, send yourself emails with important files attached, and save them there. You can retrieve them from any computer with Internet access (eg, at a library).
  • Upload a GEDCOM file to Rootsweb's WorldConnect (free). You can download it if you need it.
  • Various Web sites (eg, State Library of Qld) have advice on salvaging items damaged by water. Print a copy and store it in your Emergency Evacuation Kit (with some freezer bags).
  • If your computer is submerged, it may still be possible to retrieve data from the hard drive.
  • Read Geneabloggers' guides to data backup and disaster recovery plans.


  1. I've given some thought to this as well. My place backs on to the bush, and although the bushfires haven't come close to us they may one day. I also have a creek in the back yard but it would have to be a catastophic amount of run to make it flood the lower floor of the house, although apparently it has in the past.
    My backups are on an external hard drive and a netbook, with some of the files that change frequently backed up online. I have coloured stickers on the photo albums that I would want to grab in a hurry, and negatives, etc, stored in a plastic box ready to go. I've never thought about books, though!

  2. Carole, I had not really thought about that either until I started packing my friend's 10,000 books! When I came home I did a thorough search and found some family history books that I had not unpacked when I moved house. They would have been difficult to replace, because the authors did not know that they had to give Legal Deposit copies to certain libraries.

  3. All my genealogy is on my computer- everything (photo's/docs/bits and bobs), in fact i dont have many paper copies and those that i do have been scanned and are on my PC.
    Regarding backup, i backup everyday and so everything is kept overseas and with unlimited space, i have no limitations. I also backup on a external harddrive at home.

    As for other household stuff, not as important as my genealogy.

  4. BobbyFamilyTree, you said you 'backup everyday and so everything is kept overseas'. What do you use for that, and do you know the actual physical location of the overseas server?

  5. I like Dropbox very much, but it's pricey when you start adding in hi-res scans of photos and images.

    Judy, this was a great post. Very helpful.

  6. A friend of mine uses Dropbox and likes it. At present I only have a slow dial-up Internet connection most of the time, but when I have better access with broadband I will try Dropbox.

  7. Judy, this is a timely post. Living in Darwin (as with FNQ) you tend to think about these matters. I have strategies for my precious things (not usually valuable if you see the difference). With regular-enough power outages we have a corded-phone and a radio and my daughter in Canberra has a copy of my hard drive on an external drive -at least I wouldn't lose everything. I'm trying (slowly) to scan my photos but in the meantime I have my top-favourite slides & all my negatives in one place. Fingers crossed the bases are covered! As for the books-10,000 and I thought I had a lot!. Mine will have to cope I fear. Thanks once again.

  8. And then, of course, it is sometimes not only the family history, but the family itself. One cousin took his two young sons down to the harbour to watch the fishing boats offloading, and they were wiped out by a tsunami. His wife at home was pregnant with their youngest child, who grew up not knowing her father.

  9. Steve, that is so sad. -- Since I wrote this post I have started using Evernote. I store some temporary notes in 'local' notebooks (just on my computer) but the important notes I put in a 'synchronized' notebook so that they can be stored on-line as a backup.

  10. Judy, I've taken to sending emails to Evernote as well as a backup.

    1. A wise move, Pauleen. Some of these online backup services may eventually vanish, of course (or lose our data - it has happened in the past!) so it's a good idea to have things in multiple places.


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