Something amazing happened on 28th January 2014.
It started like any other day for me.
I am the mother of two children, have lived in Marietta (just North of Atlanta) for 11 years and have run Marietta Moms, a support group for moms (now on Facebook) for 7 years. I have two jobs. I write websites for Utility/Power companies for a consultancy in Tucker, GA, on a part-time basis and I have a company of my own – a classifieds website – that I have been building for a few years.
When I went to work on Tuesday morning, I was aware that the weather outlook was that snow would come in to Atlanta around lunchtime and that schools would probably be closed early as a result. I read a number of parents’ complaints on Facebook that the authorities were being overly cautious, that our schools should stay open and that “a few inches of snow” should not bring a whole city to a standstill. Some of this was powered by an incident a couple of weeks ago where we had a “Snow day with no snow” which appeared to make the local School District (CCSD) a laughing stock at the time.
I went to work at the Consultancy in Tucker a little worried about how I would pick up my kids if snow closed the school early. Tucker is a good 40 minutes from my house and I felt I had not been pulling my weight at work since Christmas already and would feel bad “ducking out” of work early. My husband offered to pick up the kids but he would not be able to leave until pretty close to the time the kids would need to be picked up. It made me nervous.
When the school called, I told them I would pick up the kids but I tried to encourage my husband to leave earlier. He felt he could not, which made me nervous again. I remembered Atlanta coming to a standstill before due to very little snow. So, although I felt guilty leaving work almost as soon as I had arrived, I left. On the way home, I worried about my job, wondering whether I had done the right thing.
The highway was fine when I drove home – but it was a different story as soon as I got to the back roads close to my house. They were like ice rinks already. I know how to drive on ice and went slowly and tapped my brakes, but still I spun out twice – how I avoided a crash I have no idea – and put my hazards on for the rest of the journey.
When I got home, I had driven so slowly that my husband and the kids were already there. I got on my pc to tell my boss and others at work to go home immediately to avoid a nightmare journey home. As soon as I got on Facebook I realized it was far too late. People who should have only been minutes behind me were at a complete standstill and were unable to move. Accidents were cropping up all over town. I found myself acting as an intermediary as friends tried to get help for their loved ones (or for themselves) and I tried to find information, people and resources to help them. One, Lori Stein, was trying to get her husband to somewhere safe where he could abandon his car and walk back to his office as it was already apparent that he was not going to get home that night. I had friends in that area who were telling me the best stores and car parks to head to. Suddenly, I realized that I could not keep acting as an intermediary. I needed to create a group where people could connect with one another and interact with one another to get help without having to go through me.
I realized very quickly that this was an Atlanta-wide problem, and it seemed that the people we were going to have to help were likely to spend the whole night out in the snow. So I called the group SnowedOutAtlanta. I invited all my friends who were offering help to one another or who were in need of help into the group. I left the group settings as open as is possible on Facebook, allowing people to invite their friends to the group as they wished. It was incredible how fast the group grew.
I then spent my time trolling websites and tv stations for all the latest news, info and resources I could find to share with people. People started to advise one another on which roads to take to get home, where to go to get gas, where the closest hotels were etc. Those at home on computers found it easier to search on google maps etc. for locations and then simply pass that information to those in need on their cellphones.
Suddenly SnowedOutAtlanta had become a lifeline and there were 1000’s of users. By 11pm, we had helped over 400 people and after that I stopped counting. As it grew colder and darker, I posted tips on how to stay alive overnight in a car – how to ensure that carbon monoxide did not build up in the car, how to conserve gas but stay warm, etc. I posted local police numbers and information about shelters in town.
I had recently read a book called “The Facebook Effect” which told me how effectively Facebook can be used to connect people, and how quick Facebook pages can grow in some situations, but at the time I read it, I was hoping to use the effect to promote my own website. Instead now I was putting it into effect to help people – literally to save lives in many cases. This felt a much better use of the tool to me.
Meanwhile, it became very clear that the Police and Emergency Services were simply overwhelmed and unable to help this number of people. It was up to us.
People started by offering their homes for the night to anyone stranded. They were taking blankets, food and drink out to those in the cars in front of their houses. Some were offering 4 wheel drive support and rescue. A woman called Rachel Bruce co-ordinated with another woman, Jelena Crawford, to create a set of awesome maps. The most important one allowed stranded people to find shelter (in hotels, stores and in people’s homes), bathrooms, gas, food and drink.. even cellphone chargers!
We started to co-ordinate reports from various locations where shelter was being offered – Home Depot, in particular, made great efforts to help the stranded. Some Kroger, Publix, CVS and Walgreens stores and some hotels were also offering shelter and help. We added these locations to the map and to our pinned post at the top of the page.
A friend of mine, Elizabeth Cervantes, frantically asked for help for her elderly mother who was partially disabled and could not leave her car although she was totally stuck in the snow. The police and ambulance could not get to her. Someone from the group walked to her car to provide her with food and drink and a blanket and waited with her until the ambulance arrived, finally, hours later and took her home, much to Elizabeth’s relief.
Another woman was very worried about her father who was having chest pains and had a history of heart trouble. He was refusing to go to hospital or call an ambulance and the woman was frantic. The group rallied together and managed to find someone to persuade him to get in an ambulance and go to hospital.
The most heart-rending moments were the times when mothers broke down on the site pleading for help in finding their children who appeared to be lost on School buses that never arrived. It seemed that the only thing we could do for them at first was support and comfort them, but after a while people who joined the site said they had just spotted the buses they were asking about (the numbers were on the buses) and that the kids were fine, just very frustrated. However, as the hours went on, it was more worrisome imagining a bus full of children stuck on the highway for 10 hours with no bathrooms, little food and little water in such hazardous conditions, and the moms were understandably distressed.
One great moment for the site was when many resources all came together. A pregnant woman called Katie had been stranded with her three year old son in her car for 12 hours on the clover leaf from I75 to I285. She was dehydrated and was starting to have Braxton hicks contractions and there was concern within the group that she might go into full on labor. Attempts to get her help from the Emergency Services and the National Guard all failed so we started asking for help from car drivers nearby. Someone was able to take water to her. A guy called Craig offered to drive his 4 wheel drive to pick her up. We were all in awe of this courageous guy driving in terrible conditions to get her, but he did it. He rescued her and her son and they are now eternally grateful. From when she first posted it took about 3.5 hours to get her home and many on the site were working all night to get others to safety too.
I myself offered a bed in my home to a number of stranded drivers, though only one was able to get to my house to take advantage of it. His name was Jorge and he had been in the car for 11 hours by the time he arrived at my house, on foot because he could not drive on the ice any longer. He was anxious about his wife, who had had a car crash due to the ice with their baby in the car, and their two girls who had had to go home with a school teacher because neither parent could pick them up as a result. Luckily, an awesome Principal at Woodacres school had taken the girls into her home and looked after them for the night, a story that was typical of school teachers and school bus drivers alike that night.
At some time halfway through the night a Facebook Corporate Communications lady contacted me to say she loved what I was doing but she could see I was having trouble managing the group due to its size. It appears my group had grown to such a size, at such a rapid speed, that Facebook technology was having trouble keeping up. I was having trouble allowing new members to join and Facebook kept popping up security “captchas” (popups to check my identity) because it thought I must be spamming or scamming in some way to have a group that grew so large so quickly. Though Facebook techies worked very fast to fix some of the issues, it became clear that I had to split the group up into many sub groups in order to more effectively help people to find help in the areas in which they found themselves.
Luckily it was pretty easy to do this and to quickly direct people to the correct subgroups. I have set up a lot of Facebook groups before, including Marietta Moms – my support group for local moms and kids (mainly single moms).
Once those subgroups were in action it was incredible to watch the groups simply take off. People were helping each other and saving lives all over Atlanta. TV stations, websites and newspapers were running articles about all the people we were helping. As a result of all the extra publicity, the main site grew to 40,000 people, then to 50,000 and is now way past that. It was a very humbling and emotional experience to be a part of. I loved that I was now known as the “Snow Angel of Atlanta” but some were attributing superhuman attributes to me and that was getting a little silly. To anyone who says that I “single-handedly united all the people of Atlanta” I say that I did it with the help of 50,000 “friends” and an awesome tool called Facebook.
Looking back on the past few days, I do think there are a few lessons to be learned from the Atlanta experience.
Firstly, I think we should not blame the School District, or the Authorities, when they are “overly cautious”. Judgement calls in these situations are a lot easier with hindsight and I personally would rather err on the side of caution.
Secondly, I hope local authorities and governments now realize the power of social media to help people in disaster situations. I can see no reason why similar Facebook pages should not help people all over the USA, when there are tornadoes, hurricanes, power outages, forest fires, floods or snowstorms. I think it would be a good idea to set these up in advance so that people know where to go to get information when the time arises. I am going to be talking to a number of groups about how this can be done across the country.
Thirdly, I think the best lesson I learned is the good inside people – that every person can do something in a disaster, and that most people want to. I really think this snowstorm could have been Atlanta’s mini-Katrina if it had not been for social media. Just having that connection to people via social media helped so many people survive Tuesday night. Knowing that they had options – houses nearby who were offering shelter, bathrooms and food, or gas stations nearby where there was still gas and the ability to charge cellphones – helped a great deal. The number of Good Samaritans who offered a bed or couch to complete strangers was overwhelming. Our motto that night became “Together, we are awesome”. Those who wanted to thank us for all our help were told to simply “Pay It Forward”. The corny phrase “restored my faith in humanity” was repeated over and over again on the site on Tuesday night but it really sums up how I feel as a result of this whole experience. On Tuesday night, we experienced Southern Hospitality at its best!
If anyone would like to Pay It Forward in this way, please go to http://www.redcross.org/Som