TAMPA — At 1 a.m. Friday, as delegates began boarding buses back to their hotels and protesters bedded down in their tents and police stood on corners chatting with wobbly women in cocktail dresses, workers on 16 garbage trucks set out to clean up the biggest party Tampa has ever had.
Rubal Butler steered toward the convention center, where orange cones narrowed the road to a single lane. Here, for the last six days, he'd had to wait while security officers swept his truck and dogs sniffed his cab. Then, four vehicles had escorted him into the event zone — and waited while he loaded the overflowing bins.
Friday morning, though, he drove straight through. "Looks like the checkpoint is closed," he told another driver through his radio. "Thank God."
Journey was still rocking beneath the white tent. Inside, men in suits drank canned Coronas. Outside, cops in khaki opened a gate so Butler could hook his lift to the 40-yard-long container. "During a normal event, we get about 7 tons from here," he said. "Since yesterday, I have collected 19 tons already. And look, it's already full again."
Most of the trash was in clear bags: empty crates of Barefoot wine, boxes of Bud Light, empty bottles of energy drink, piles of popped balloons. "Everyone kept talking about what a mess the streets would be," Butler said. "But really, we've had more trash from partiers than from protesters."
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The city's solid waste supervisors started planning for the Republican National Convention two years ago. They even called cleanup crews in Denver and Minneapolis to find out what to expect.
They learned that containers had been rolled into crowds like battering rams. So they locked all the wheels. They heard people hurled rolling carts like grenades, so they pulled 301 collection cans from downtown and told merchants to bag their debris.
The garbage collectors' most important job, they discovered, was sweeping the city before the convention started — removing anything that might be used as a weapon.
"That first day, I got 30 calls about items that presented potential problems," said Tonja Brickhouse, who supervises the city's solid waste department. "Our crews found bricks, PVC pipes, pieces of concrete stashed behind fences and on roofs. Throughout the week, we collected five cubic yards of what could have been dangerous materials."
They anticipated vandalism, broken windows and bruised businesses. But except for 15 incidents of graffiti, only one public area was attacked. In Joe Chillura Courthouse Square Park, people pried off the top slab of about 60 yards of the knee-high concrete walls. "They must have had crowbars," Brickhouse said. "Who thinks like that?"
Instead of hiring extra clean-up crews, she offered workers overtime and kept collection going 24 hours a day. She told them to plan for "Gasparilla on steroids," and projected about five times the amount of trash collected during the 2009 Super Bowl. She has no idea how much the convention cost her department.
When workers set out on their final sweep Friday morning, Brickhouse said they had already hauled off nearly 7,000 tons of trash — enough to fill three Olympic swimming pools. "That's 808 tons more than during this same week last year," she said. In six days, that was almost as much trash as New Orleans' Mardi Gras revelers generate in six weeks.
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At 3 a.m. Friday, while Journey was playing its final song and bartenders were giving last call and conventioneers were pouring into cabs, Darryl Bowers steered his compactor truck beneath the full moon, along downtown's barricaded streets.
"I'm going to Romneyville," he told Brickhouse through the radio.
"Be careful," she replied.
The lot beside the Army surplus store was packed, tents pitched feet apart, people strewn on sheets. But by the time Bowers pulled up, most of the protesters were snoring.
Five containers waited in a parking lot across the street. Two blue cans were propped up by the curb.
Workers had been collecting trash there three times a day. "These protesters have been really nice," Bowers said, dumping a pile of wet blue jeans into his truck. "We really haven't had to clean up much off the ground."
As he drove to the dump, he and Brickhouse talked about the week. All that worrying for nothing. "All that planning paid off," she said. "I have really been amazed. You'd think there would be more mess."
Bowers pulled up beside the scale, where Butler was tipping the last load: 1.2 tons of plastic plates and Solo cups, protester signs and patriotic placards. "This party is over. But we'll be back out here tomorrow," he said. "Garbage never stops."
Researchers Natalie Watson and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Lane DeGregory can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8825.