During 2014 snowstorm, Cobb woman used social media to save lives

Snowpocalypse, 2014

Margaret Hannah is wearing Birkenstocks, and no socks. Her speech is slurred, her hands are numb.

After eight hours barely moving on 285, she has left her stranded car near Perimeter Mall, and has been walking in the cold. It is 2 in the morning.

She hikes to a Publix, but it is closed. The night manager at a nearby hotel won’t let her in. He says he can’t let unattended people stay in the lobby.

Hannah, 64, is getting desperate. “I didn’t know it then, but my life was in danger,” she said later.

When Atlanta skidded to a stop on Jan. 28, 2014, it looked like there was no one there to save people like Hannah.

Snow, ice and the mother of all traffic jams choked the interstates and kept travelers frozen in their cars for up to 18 hours. The state’s emergency management network failed. Salt trucks never reached their destinations, calls to 911 went unanswered and first responders couldn’t get past the jackknifed semi-trailers clogging exit ramps.

While the public safety apparatus fell apart, one spunky Marietta mom helped hold it together.

As the flakes started falling that afternoon, quick-thinking Michelle Johnston Sollicito, a British transplant, created a Facebook group called SnowedOutAtlanta to help travelers, like Hannah, get back home. The website attracted attention at an astounding rate, growing to 50,000 members in less than 24 hours.

Hundreds of calls for help flowed through the page each hour, and were met by hundreds of offers of assistance. SnowedOutAtlanta, became, arguably, the most successful citizen response to the disaster. Without a doubt, it saved lives.

Processing a hundred posts a minute, the group heard from stranded motorists and their family members. Self-appointed volunteers watched the site, and then brought blankets and food, offered free lodging for the night, and fired up their four-by-fours to get sick people and pregnant women to nearby hospitals. Five of them were working on Margaret Hannah’s behalf, as she waited in the cold.

“It’s important to know what these people did,” wrote fellow volunteer Alicia Sears Hernandez. “There are more stories of regular people doing amazing things than can ever truly be counted.”

Through SnowedOutAtlanta Dina Loetz found someone to transport her 21-year-old son to the emergency room. She poured her thanks out on the Facebook page: “You all are amazing and have beautiful hearts.”

Elizabeth Cervantes posted at 9:17 p.m. on Jan. 28 that her 71-year-old mother had been trapped in her car in Roswell for eight hours. Crippled by a broken hip, her mother couldn’t walk, and neither the police, nor Triple A could help. Calls to 911 returned a busy signal.

Soon volunteers had the mother’s location pinpointed, were bringing her blankets and hot chocolate and were sitting with her when an ambulance arrived at 11:24 p.m.

“You guys all absolutely rock!” posted Cervantes.

One part computer nerd, one part Florence Nightingale

When you visit Michelle Sollicito’s house in Marietta, you see what she lives for. The living room is clogged with skateboards and electric guitars, the breakfast room alive with chirping cockatiels and scuttling turtles, two rescue dogs and a tuxedo-clad cat. This is a kid’s paradise.

“My children are everything,” she said, of Ben, 9 and Julia, 7. Sollicito, 46, has long been active in their schools, and has hosted several online mothers’ groups.

The mothers share information about work days and school projects, and, on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 they monitored the troubling weather forecasts.

Sollicito kept one eye on the Cobb County schools website that morning while working at Apogee Interactive, an IT consultancy for the utility industry. When word came down that Cobb schools would close early, she hustled out of the Tucker office at noon and headed west.

The roads were already slippery, and Sollicito fishtailed twice, then slowed down when she learned that her husband Vincent Sollicito, also an IT specialist, had already picked up the children. At home, Michelle began answering questions for members of her mothers’ group about school buses that were late, while others posted updates on roads that had turned into bobsled runs.

She knew this event would be big and she needed to create a bigger group.

Sollicito was the right woman for the job. She received her first computer at age 11 (a Sinclair) and was adept at managing online groups. By creating SnowedOutAtlanta, Sollicito allowed the members to speak with each other, while she ferreted out information from official sources and “pinned” it to the top of the page. As the group rapidly grew, “it soon became apparent that the most up-to-date source of information was actually coming from inside the group - the members of the group themselves.”

The members knew which roads were impassable. They knew the nearest gas station to exit 254 off I-75. Instead of trying to answer questions, Sollicito let the members ask and answer each other.

Most government sites are designed for one-way conversations: the experts talk while the public listens. The genius of SnowedOutAtlanta was that everyone talked at once, answering questions as fast as they were asked. ‘Where is Bus 586?’ ‘Can someone check on my mother?’

“As darkness fell, the mood turned to panic,” Sollicito wrote in a book-length account of her experience. “People were starting to run out of gas, it was starting to get colder, more and more accidents were happening out on the roads and more and more people had to abandon their vehicles.”

Then something wonderful happened. Helpers on the site began to offer their own houses to stranded strangers. As the offers rolled in, Jelena Crawford, a Kirkwoood resident, built a Google Map attached to the site that any user could edit to include requests and offers. It soon had 800 offers, including phone numbers and addresses.

Wrote Sollicito, “It made me cry, and helped restore my faith in humanity.” Accordingly, she offered her own house. “At first I was a bit apprehensive,” said her husband. “You have no idea who this person is.” But the guest turned out to be “a really nice guy . . He was cold and tired and hungry and incredibly grateful. In the end it was no trouble at all.”

After Margaret Hannah called a friend back in her hometown of Greenville, S.C., the friend found SnowedOutAtlanta, and the SOA volunteers found Hannah. They directed her to a nearby Home Depot, which was staying open all night. They even sent the manager out to look for her. A Sandy Springs police officer gave her a ride.

“She did a terrific job,” said Hannah, of Sollicito.

Michelle Sollicito herself wouldn’t close her eyes for 36 hours, running the site simultaneously on two iPads, an iPhone and a PC. “I thought people were going to die,” she said. As the group approached 50,000 members and became one of Facebook’s fastest growing groups, it began to slow down. Facebook employees contacted Sollicito and suggested she break it into subgroups, which she did.

She re-activated the page two weeks later, when the Feb. 12 ice storm came through. During that storm people stayed home, and the traffic nightmare was reduced.

Reforming Atlanta’s preparedness

Though she was shy about requests for interviews, Sollicito gained much attention for her efforts. Sun Trust Bank gave $5,000 to the charity of her choice (the Red Cross). The check was presented during half time at a Hawk’s game.

She traveled to Texas to meet George H.W. Bush, and receive a “Points of Light” award. Local actor and independent producer Jason “Lumberjack” Johnson began filming a documentary.

She also tried to change the state’s approach to disaster response. Sollicito presented a plan to the governor’s chief of staff, spoke at a conference of Douglas and Cobb emergency management personnel, took a course in Community Emergency Response Training (CERT) and created a Facebook group (HelpAtlanta) to collect disaster response information.

Is the city better prepared now?

Some of Sollicito’s suggestions have been adopted by some agencies, she said, such as a tiered 911 system. Cobb County, she said, is particularly well prepared. But the metro area will always be vulnerable to snow, and Atlantans will need to simply stay home during bad weather, she said.

The experience has made Sollicito even more politically active than she was before. She was grateful for the heroics of stranded school bus drivers who kept children safe, and is campaigning against a state budget that might remove bus drivers from health coverage.

She is also grateful for the upside of the Snowpocalypse. “For me it was like a spiritual experience,” she said. “Everyone was connected and moving toward the same goal.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.