File recovery: When things have to happen quicklyFile recovery: When things have to happen quickly
Industry Insight

File recovery: When things have to happen quickly


What has changed as a result of the disastrous floods in Germany in 2021?

Harrowing scenes occurred on 13 July 2021 when the low-pressure system known as ‘Bernd’ struck the south-west of Germany and triggered disastrous flooding that caused serious devastation during the following few days. The floods kept people on tenterhooks for three days and they were the dominant topic in the media. The floods destroyed many private homes and caused very severe problems for the public sector and companies too. Even now, months and years later, this once-in-a-lifetime event is still posing challenges for the people in the affected regions: the reconstruction work and the provision of financial aid and subsidies have proceeded at a slow pace – and the same is still true today. The economic damage caused to the area has been enormous and it will still take many years before the affected regions recover from the consequences of the horrendous floods.


Climate change not just in Germany – An urgent need for action

Two years later in September 2023: the year has been very wet so far and this is due to the effects of climate change. Other events that are also associated with climate change are extended periods of drought, heatwaves and heavy, incessant rain.

Severe weather has occurred much more frequently in the recent past and this is not only the case in Germany. Countries such as Greece, Spain and even the United States of America have been affected – in the form of serious forest fires or major floods. On a global scale, the summer of 2023 has easily been the hottest since weather records began in 1940, as the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service communicated recently.

The disaster in 2021 made it clear that climate protection measures and other measures designed for adaptation to climate change are urgently required to ensure that there is no repetition of these kinds of scenes in future. The German Environment Minister, Steffi Lemke (Alliance 90/The Greens), underlined this in a statement that she gave recently. ‘We won’t be able to do business or live in exactly the same way as my generation has done during the last 40 years.’ She added, ‘There’s an urgent need for action in the environmental field. We need to make Germany “weather-resistant” for the future,’ because the disastrous floods in the summer of 2021 are now viewed as one of the worst natural disasters in Germany.

Damage at every level

More than 180 people lost their lives in the floods in Germany and the damage caused to property was estimated to be more than 13 billion euros a short time later – and that was just the figure for the Federal State of North Rhine-Westphalia. Experts now believe that the damage amounts to 46 billion euros. Roads, railway lines and bridges were destroyed and supplies of gas, electricity and water were disrupted in many places too. Private households were not the only ones facing challenges – companies were also affected. Equipment and sensitive files, some of which are extremely valuable for companies, were severely damaged or destroyed by the water that made its way into basements. The documents were seriously affected by the contaminated water. Rapid action was essential to preserve the files, which were saturated, some of which were already damaged by mould. The process of recovering files was started.

Definition of file recovery

File recovery describes the process of restoring damaged files in order to maintain their legibility in the long term. This process is extremely important for maintaining historical records or documents and papers that have to be archived and are subject to statutory retention periods. Various techniques and methods are used when recovering files in order to repair the damaged materials and protect them from any further harm. They include, for example, cleaning, drying and treating the materials.

Recovering files requires expertise, experience and the use of special equipment and materials. It is therefore advisable to contact experts and professional service providers because they have the necessary know-how to guarantee efficient restoration work.

File recovery – Immediate measures

One factor is crucially important in the recovery process – time. The faster measures are introduced after any damage has occurred, the better. This ideally minimises any formation of mould or even prevents it completely. However, if mould does form, there are appropriate solutions to cope with this too.

10 steps for treating files – The Rhenus process in detail

Initially, an order is placed for the work. Rhenus employees identify, package and palletise the damaged files.   

Rhenus transports the goods in its own trucks in order to ensure that the materials that require recovery are safely transported to the file recovery centre.  

After the materials have safely arrived at the centre, they are flash-frozen at a temperature of about -20 degrees Celsius. The aim of this process is to stop the spread of any moisture. Freezing also means that any pests such as paper silverfish die and it also halts the growth of mould fungi.

After the documents emerge from the freezer compartments, the moisture is carefully removed from the damaged files in special vacuum chambers. The files are conveyed to the chambers on special drying carriages and remain there for several days while the moisture is removed as steam by means of the so-called ‘sublimation effect’.

Gamma irradiation treatment with powerful x-rays then follows for the contaminated material. This reliably kills off any mould spores that still exist.

It is possible to conduct microbiological examinations during the various phases of the process in order to prove the efficacy of the measures and guarantee the safety of employees.  

Once the drying and gamma irradiation stages have been completed, Rhenus then performs thorough manual cleaning in its own clean-room area. If the customer so wishes, each individual sheet of paper is carefully dusted off and cleaned, and any irreparably damaged folders are replaced.

The neutralisation of any strong odour contamination is provided as an optional service in order to guarantee that the materials will once again be available for storage in the best possible condition in the customer’s archive or the Rhenus archive. 

The option of directly digitalising the files during the cleaning operation is available; as a result, the information that they contain is easily accessible and the originals can be safely archived.  

After the recovery and cleaning work has been completed, the documents are securely transported to the customer’s archive or to a new archiving centre – e.g. at Rhenus Archive Services.

Undersecretary Dr Matthias Frey visits the Rhenus Data Office to discover more about the process of file recovery

From left to right: the President of Koblenz Higher Regional Court, Thomas Henrich, the Managing Director of Rhenus Data Office GmbH, Michael Wiegmann, the Director of the Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler Local Court, Dr Susanne Dreyer-Mälzer, the Undersecretary at the State Ministry of Justice, Dr Matthias Frey, and the Head of the File Recovery Department at Rhenus Data Office GmbH, Marion Kohnen

The local court in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler also did not escape the effects of the floods. The night the flooding occurred brought water and mud into the office building, which not only destroyed the infrastructure of the court, but also flooded more than 1,750 metres of shelf space containing files. The Undersecretary at the State Ministry of Justice in the Rhineland-Palatinate, Dr Matthias Frey, travelled to the local court on the anniversary of the floods to learn more about the ongoing work that is taking place there. He then visited the business site of Rhenus Data Office GmbH in Nottuln. It has been possible to restore the documents damaged by the flood by means of the file recovery process.


It’s impressive to see what’s possible nowadays using modern technology. Many of our files would probably have been lost in the past. But we now have an opportunity to recover them.
Dr Matthias Frey | Undersecretary at the State Ministry of Justice

Various potential solutions follow as a response

The effects of the floods have left their mark and have created a great deal of work for people in the long term. Many households and companies have introduced their own measures and have set up drainage pumps in their basements to ensure that major damage does not occur again in future. The pumps make it possible to drain rooms quickly and reliably if the area experiences flooding again. Many of those affected by the tragedy also use calcium silicate boards for renovating rooms that have been damaged by damp and eliminating mould. These boards are used for the insulation of entire walls or partially insulating problematic areas if mould poses a particular risk there. Calcium silicate boards are able to absorb excessive moisture in the air and store it in small intermediate spaces. If a room has too little atmospheric humidity, calcium silicate boards can release the moisture again. This therefore regulates the air in a room.

‘Cell Broadcast’ and ‘NINA’ – The new warning systems

The disaster prevention services in Germany have also been improved in response to the devastating consequences. The ‘Cell Broadcast’ mobile phone warning system has been available across Germany since February 2023. If an emergency develops, mobile phones receive a push notification and emit a piercing sound, depending on the warning level. There is no need for any special app to receive the notification; all the devices that are equipped to receive messages and switched on automatically register with the closest radio cell and are contacted. The operating system works on Apple smartphones from iPhone 6 upwards. Devices with the Android system are compatible from Version 11 upwards.

The aim of the system is to provide improved warnings of possible disasters in future and reach many people. It is a modern alternative to warning sirens, which were dismantled in many places for cost reasons or because of technical obsolescence after the end of the Cold War. They are, however, being reactivated because of these current circumstances.  

The Federal Agency for Civil Protection can also warn about hazards across Germany using its emergency information and message app, known as ‘NINA’. The app is available free of charge, but users have to actively download it. It supports both Android and iOS smartphones. A push notification also provides information about weather warnings, flood information and similar events.



The disastrous floods have been a wake-up call and the responses to them continue to be felt, whether in the form of the ongoing reconstruction work or the introduction of preventive measures. The topic of protecting the environment and global warming will continue to accompany us and we need to find solutions so that there is no repetition of the disastrous events experienced in 2021. 

If an emergency occurs and files are damaged, the process of file recovery is an effective solution and can be a success story, as the example in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler demonstrates, provided that an order is placed for the services quickly and the work is performed correctly.

Do you need any measures to recover your files?

The Rhenus Group provides assistance to support all your business needs. Discover more about the extensive logistics services for files.



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