- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2007

JUNEAU, Alaska — Everyone who ever sat at a keyboard knows that moment of terror with the realization that a single accidental keystroke has wiped out hours of work. Pity the technician for the Alaska Department of Revenue who wiped out a disk drive containing information for an account worth $38 billion.

Performing routine maintenance, the technician deleted applicant information for an oil-funded account — one of Alaska residents’ biggest perks — and mistakenly reformatted the backup drive, as well.

There was still hope until the department discovered its third line of defense, backup tapes, were unreadable.

“Nobody panicked, but we instantly went into planning for the worst-case scenario,” says Amy Skow, the Permanent Fund Dividend Division director. The computer foul-up in July cost the department more than $200,000 to fix.

Over the next few days, as the department, the division and consultants from Microsoft Corp. and Dell Inc. labored to retrieve the data, it became obvious the worst-case scenario was at hand.

Nine months worth of applicant information for the yearly payout from the Alaska Permanent Fund was gone: some 800,000 electronic images that had been painstakingly scanned into the system months earlier, the 2006 paper applications that people had either mailed in or filed over the counter, and supporting documentation such as birth certificates and proof of residence.

The only backup was the paperwork itself — stored in more than 300 cardboard boxes.

“We had to bring that paper back to the scanning room, and send it through again, and quality control it, and then you have to have a way to link that paper to that person’s file,” Miss Skow says.

Half a dozen seasonal workers came back to help the regular division staff, and about 70 people working overtime and weekends re-entered all the lost data by the end of August.

“They were just ready, willing and able to chip in and, in fact, we needed all of them to chip in to get all the paperwork rescanned in a timely manner so that we could meet our obligations to the public,” she says.

In October and November, the department met that obligation. A majority of the estimated 600,000 payments for last year’s $1,106.96 individual dividends went out on schedule, including those for 28,000 applicants who were still under review when the computer disaster struck.

Bill Corbus, the former revenue commissioner, says no one was blamed. “Everybody felt very bad about it, and we all learned a lesson.” The department now has a proven and regularly tested backup procedure.

The department is asking lawmakers to approve a supplemental budget request for $220,700 to cover the excess costs incurred during the six-week recovery effort, including about $128,400 in overtime and $71,800 for computer consultants.

The money would come from the permanent fund earnings, the money earmarked for the dividends. That means recipients could find their next check docked by about 37 cents.

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