Atlanta Shutdown Disrupts 2014 International Production & Processing Expo

It will never rise to the level of a “Where were you on 9/11?” catastrophe, but last week’s Atlanta blizzard that brought the city to its knees and disrupted a major food-industry show will be grist for tales of inconvenienced business travel for years to come.

It’s a big deal when the country’s ninth largest metro area and the world’s largest airport shut down. Less than two inches of snow fell, but even flurries freak out people south of the Mason-Dixon Line. As a Chicagoan, I’m a connoisseur of frozen ice. We have almost as many names for it as the Eskimos, ranging from light-and-fluffy to heart-attack snow. This stuff was different: it was extremely compact and dense, and what it lacked in depth, it made up for mass. Two blocks from my hotel, the road crossed over a section of the interstate. A rock-hard snow pack covered the roadway, which hadn’t seen a plow or a salt truck. Traffic volume was too light to cause melting form tire friction.

Organizers of the International Production & Processing Expo—it will always be the chicken show to me—claimed they had more than 24,000 registrants. “Initial projections were at 28,000 registrants, but inclement weather impacted a significant portion of drive-in traffic,” allowed organizers in a statement issued on the show’s third day. “Fortunately, most of the IPPE’s fly-in attendees were already here.”

Nice pirouette, but being in Atlanta didn’t equate to being at the show. The snow started flying on the first day (Jan. 28), and by Day 2, normally the show’s busiest, Atlanta was immobilized. I arrived in the second day’s first wave, and the exhibit hall was like an airline terminal after the last flight out: a small crowd of forlorn souls, trapped for the duration. Without any pesky customers in the booths, the exhibitors had all the time in the world to talk as I skipped from one exhibitor to the next. Further processing of value-added products has been poultry’s direction for 20-plus years, and almost every gas supplier of cryogens and quite a few refrigeration specialists were on hand, a convenience for the refrigeration technology story I was working on for Food Processing February edition.

While chatting with a supplier, I got an automated phone call regarding the cancellation of my evening flight. Immediately, I thought of the thousands of desperate people I’d seen that morning at the airport. They were the lost souls who couldn’t get a hotel room. I also thought of the gentleman I’d seen the prior evening. The wind was howling, the snow was flying, and temperature had crashed to the low 20s, yet this coatless fellow was standing outside, desperately dialing hotels for a room that wasn’t available. As he dashed for a taxi line without any taxis, I cautioned him about the effects of hypothermia, to which he replied, “That’s the least of my problems!”

Mercifully, I escaped to the frozen north on the Expo’s third day. A colleague told me attendance cratered even further by then. Exhibitors were in open rebellion, breaking down their booths in the early afternoon and daring show managers to chastise them. They got out of town in time to make way for the weathermen: the American Meteorological Society took up residence in Atlanta’s convention center two days later.