So your computer got wet

Tips to saving your data

This was put together originally for friends in Louisiana shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit. It’s still a good guide for data recovery after a disaster of any type.

”Computers weren't designed to be submersible."
Brent Woodworth,
Worldwide Manager,
IBM Crisis Response Team. 09/15/2005

It’s tempting to turn that computer back on and see if anything can be saved. Don’t. The disk drives can contain contaminants that can destroy the drive and all the data on it.

Hard Disk Drives
  • Never assume that data is unrecoverable;
  • Do not shake or disassemble any hard drive that has been damaged;
  • Do not attempt to clean or dry water-logged drives or tapes
  • Before storing or shipping wet media, it should be placed in a Zip-Lok bag or other container that will keep it damp and protect shipping material from getting wet. Wet boxes can break apart during transit causing further damage to a drive.
  • Do not use software utility programs on broken or water-damaged devices
  • When shipping hard drives, tapes or other removable media to a data recovery service, package them in a box that has enough room for both the media and some type of packing material that allows for no movement. The box should also have sufficient barrier room around the inside edges to absorb impact during shipping.
  • If you have multiple drives, tapes or other removable media that need recovery, ship them in separate boxes or make sure they are separated enough with packing material so there will be no contact.

Floppy Disks / Tapes
  • Water-damaged tapes and floppy disks are fragile. If a tape is wet, store it in a bag so it remains wet. If a tape is dry, do not rewet it. Many data recovery services can unspool tapes and recover data.
  • Floppy disks hold so little that they typically aren’t worth the expense of trying to recover.

  • CDs and DVDs are reasonably sturdy. Unless they had been sitting in a corrosive mix, or are visibly damaged, they can be cleaned and the data recovered.
  • If they were on a spindle or stacked and are now stuck together, do not try to peel them apart.
    • Mix a solution of 90 percent clean (potable) water and 10 percent isopropyl alcohol. Soak the stack of CDs until they become unstuck. Wipe dry with clean, lint-free cloth if possible.
  • To clean CDs or DVDs, rinse them in the water/isopropyl alcohol solution. If necessary to remove grime, wipe them again with cotton swaps or cloth soaked in isopropyl alcohol. Remember, scratches will cause loss of data, so be gentle.
  • After cleaning, place CD in a functioning computer and copy any recovered data.

USB flash drives
  • USB flash drives contain no moving parts. Unless physically damaged or corroded, the drives usually work. Ensure the drive is dry and clean (Use a Q-tip soaked in the alcohol/water solution to wipe the USB contacts) before using a water-soaked flash drive.
  • If a drive has been physically damaged, some data recovery services will remove the flash chips and connect them to a new device in an effort to recover the data.

Data recovery is a two-step process.
  • Flood-damaged devices need to be opened and cleaned in a clean room. Hard drives need to be functional, requiring data recovery services to keep a large inventory of obscure parts on hand. All of this is expensive.
  • Once a drive is functional, it is evaluated and the customer provided with a list of the files on a drive and the probability of recovery for those files. If the customer gives the go-ahead the data is then recovered, copied to CD, external hard drive or some other medium and delivered to the customer.

Hard Drive: The evaluation fees for hard drives run between $200 and $300, though companies such as DriveSavers and Ontrack Data Recovery often will waive that for hurricane or disaster victims. The recovery fees average about $1,000 for a hard drive, though the aforementioned companies are often offer discounts.
Floppy $100-$300, depending on damage. Discounts will often apply
Tape Cost depends on type of tape, amount of damage.
USB drive Cost depends on amount of damage
Shipping Contact a data recovery service before shipping them an item in order to get a job number, estimate and any special shipping instructions. Some services will ship a special case to the customer to be used for shipping the drive.

DriveSavers: (800) 440-1904
Ontrack Data Recovery: (800) 872-2599

Sources: IBM Crisis Response Team; DriveSavers, Inc.; Ontrack Data Recovery