Damnation by Decibel

From hear to eternity, Miami is hell on your aural health

Don't be fooled by the hoarse rustle of palm fronds or the gentle lapping of waves against the beach. Miami is a noisy city. Most people don't give it much thought until sirens slice through REM sleep at three in the morning, a boom car or glass-pack-mufflered chopper rattles house windows, or a cell phone screamer rips away a daydream. But, like New York, where noise consistently gets top billing among quality-of-life concerns, Miami is finally beginning to recognize noise as a problem.

In the days after Hurricane Wilma, post-storm calm morphed into a gasoline-powered racket. Few noise complaints trickled into the City of Miami Code Enforcement Department, according to its head, Mariano Loret de Mola, but that might change next time Mother Nature beats on Florida Power & Light. Within the past year, generator sales have increased dramatically at Miami-area Home Depot stores, according to company spokesman Don Harrison, who declined to provide specific sales numbers. In the wake of Wilma, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has doled out more than $80 million to reimburse purchases of 105,546 generators for people in thirteen Florida counties, including Miami-Dade.


In South Pointe, noise levels have been such a problem that the Miami Beach Commission passed an ordinance in 2004 banning new nightclubs in the area. A group called The Grove First has been vociferous in its opposition to a new Home Depot, saying, among other things, the big box would wreck Coconut Grove's aural calm. In the interest of tranquil sidewalk brunches, police in the Grove post occasional weekend checkpoints to inspect motorcycles for illegal, ground-shaking mufflers.

This past October, the Sunny Isles Beach Commission unanimously adopted a revised noise ordinance that bans construction, including construction-related deliveries, on all federal and state holidays and doubles the fine for code violations to $500.

Driven by a steady stream of complaints, Miami-Dade Police in the Hammocks district have, since this past April, issued warnings and then court dates to people in West Kendall for playing excessively loud music on weekends.

Even at Biscayne National Park — 270 square miles of turquoise waters, coral reefs, and hardwood hammocks — officials have listed "soundscape" issues as a priority. On weekends, underwater noise, mostly from outboard engines, increases tenfold, according to Richard Curry, the park's science and natural resources director.


So the city and its environs are loud. So what? Cram 2.3 million people together; mix in boisterous, converging cultures; and someone is going to make some noise, right? True, but how much? With that question ringing in my ears, I set off, $50 Radio Shack sound meter in hand, to do a little quasiscientific research. From Hialeah to Homestead, I stuck my microphone where no microphone has gone before.

Generally I held the decibel meter a few feet from the source and recorded minimum and maximum levels over a two-minute span. It worked a little differently with noise sources such as jets at Miami International Airport. Throughout the city, the average decibel reading hovered in the mid-sixties, or about as loud as a desk fan set on high.

Surprisingly some of the loudest spots I visited included a park and a cemetery — not even the dead can find peace in Miami. Workers were drilling holes in a metal headstone marker for someone named Henrietta when I stopped by Southern Memorial Park in North Miami on a Friday afternoon. The screeching drill noise peaked around 84 decibels, about as loud as a food blender. When the drilling stopped, the sound level dropped to the mid-fifties — in the neighborhood of a mellow coffee percolator — sometimes hitting the high fifties or low sixties when the nearby intersection filled with traffic or a plane passed overhead. Apart from the drilling noise and occasionally seeing his name on other people's graves, it's a relaxing place to work, said maintenance man Raymond Pierre, age 51.

At Allapattah Comstock Park, seventeen-year-old Noesterlin Sanchez didn't seem to mind or even notice the rusty swing set's high-pitch creak. Swinging away on a Monday afternoon, Sanchez's thirteen-year-old twin cousins, Mella and Mello De la Cruz, cranked the swings up to a blackboard-scratching 76 decibels. That number shot to 86 as an ambulance screamed by, then a lawn mower wheezed to life, and finally a jet passed so low overhead it looked like it might play chicken with a city bus on NW 28th Street.

"It's quiet and it's good to be here if, like, you want to think, you know," Sanchez said.

On the flip side, Miami International Airport isn't as loud as you might think. Although a few whining jet takeoffs topped 100 decibels — the loudest noise readings citywide — from 300 feet away, most were in the low to mid-eighties on a recent Thursday morning. Overall, MIA has seen noise levels decrease with a post-9/11 drop in air traffic and quieter jet technology, according to figures provided by the Miami-Dade Aviation Department.


Around 120 decibels, the ear registers pain, but prolonged exposure to 85-decibel noise can kill inner ear cells in droves too. It's not like smoking, where you can quit and regain some sense of taste. Once you lose inner ear cells, they're gone for good. If you've ever found yourself frantically trying to silence a malfunctioning smoke detector, you know hearing loss isn't the only symptom of noise overload. It can drive you crazy — literally. Studies have shown a direct correlation between intense noise exposure and insomnia, irritability, anxiety, and decreased sex drive, according to the World Health Organization. Loud noise can also contribute to nausea, ulcers, headaches, loss of appetite, high blood pressure, and, after prolonged exposure, heart disease.

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