Damnation by Decibel

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.


Miami is a noisy city

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.

The question of exactly what role noise plays in causing these symptoms is unclear, however. It's nearly impossible to account for all the other possible factors, according to Robert Dobie, a professor at the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine and an authority on the noise-health connection. "If your neighbor is playing music quietly but you hate the music and you hate your neighbor, your blood pressure goes up," Dobie said.

Noise doesn't get much respect as a civic issue. It's recognized as a "controllable pollutant" by the federal Noise Control Act of 1972, and the Environmental Protection Agency is empowered to set noise emission standards, but when was the last time you heard a politician — outside New York — talking about noise? In Miami, most after-hours noise complaints go to the police, who, unlike code enforcement officers, carry no sound meters to gauge the severity of the problem. Usually the cops can persuade neighbors to compromise, said Miami City Police spokesman Det. Delrish Moss. "I've been here 21 years now, and I've seen one or two situations that went beyond that."

Spend a little time with Brian Clemens of the Miami-Dade Public Works Department and you'll understand the abusive power of noise. On a recent Thursday morning, Clemens was standing over a jackhammer, burrowing a concrete hole for a new stop sign at NE Second Avenue and Sixteenth Street. The sound — about 95 decibels' worth — was enough to rattle skulls. After silencing the beast, Clemens admitted his heavy-duty earphones can't keep the noise out of his head. Even after work, he said, "You sure hearing that pop-pop-pop in your ears."

Tomas Perez can't escape the sound of chattering birds. Sometimes, he said, he hears them in his dreams after a long day running Yara Pet Shop at the Opa-locka Flea Market. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, gray-breasted parakeets, finches, love birds, and about twenty other avian varieties sang and squeaked in a cacophony approaching 75 decibels as Perez tried to fix an outside awning and one of his employees swept parrot droppings out of a cage. The birds settle down only after Perez flips the light switch and closes for the day. The big macaw in the corner doesn't seem to ever go quiet, constantly chatting to himself in a loop of greetings: "How's it going? How's it going? How's it going?"

After years of using heavy equipment, landscaper Pedro Ynigo, age 51, is partially deaf in one ear. He doesn't bother wearing ear mufflers — "too sweaty," he said from the helm of a riding mower. Ynigo was tending to the lawn around the West Dade Regional Library in Westchester on a Tuesday afternoon. Noise from the mower, capable of whining around 93 decibels, and the even-louder blower are simply part of the job, not something to dwell on, Ynigo said with a shrug. "It's like a butcher. Do you get tired of the blood?"

For better or worse, noise is the pulse of Miami. It's the raw material of identity and the harbinger of change. Miami is the electrified music and sermonizing that spill out of the World Mission of Jesus Christ in Little Haiti at 82 decibels around midnight on a Friday. It's the reggaeton beat and rattling 90-decibel exhaust that make old folks roll up their windows when 25-year-old Rick Morales revs his 480-horsepower Mustang in Miami Gardens. "[People in Miami] like the music loud, the cars loud, everything loud," Morales said.

It's the sound of condominium construction sites buzzing with cranes, pile drivers, and backhoes. Take for example a stretch of Collins Avenue near 159th Street in Sunny Isles Beach. On a Monday morning, six different high-rise construction sites generated an 85-decibel wall of sound. Mario Diaz, age 32, construction supervisor for a 37-story project, surveyed the scene unimpressed. Listen to the four lanes of traffic speeding by, Diaz said. The city's noise problem isn't development, he opined, it's the traffic that development brings.

You'd probably agree with Diaz if you lived in Fairway Lakes Village just north of Sweetwater. On a Tuesday morning, workers were erecting a concrete sound barrier between the housing development and the intersection of the Dolphin Expressway and 107th Avenue — a combined eight lanes of traffic — only yards away. Ranging from the mid-to-high seventies in decibels, construction noise was barely audible over the roar of the roadway.

Farther south, in Homestead, you could easily miss the sound of Bruce Nadeau's John Deere tractor — about 78 decibels — plowing a field for sweet corn. Here, amid a sea of red tile roofs parted only by Florida's Turnpike, Nadeau is one of a dying breed. It's the last year he'll plant this leased twenty-acre plot wedged among under-construction cinder-block apartment buildings with names like Portofino West and Malibu Bay. Stepping off the tractor, 36-year-old Nadeau wiped his oil-stained hands on his flannel shirt and shouted over four lanes of traffic noise from Campbell Drive. The land's owner is selling, he said. Fifteen years ago, when he first began farming here, an acre went for about $10,000. Now developers will pay $100,000, $300,000, even $600,000, Nadeau said.

"That used to be all potatoes and corn," he said, sweeping his arm toward the red roofs. "This is it. There's no more land."

The only real estate John Lewis lays claim to is a concrete median below an I-95 overpass, where Flagler Street meets the Miami River. Taking a break from his fourteen-hour daily round of can-scrounging — "enough for about two beers, so I can get through another day" — Lewis, age 62, reclined on a flattened cardboard box here on a Friday morning. After years of wandering the city's streets homeless, he isn't fazed by the screech of bus brakes and nearly constant traffic — which climbed above 80 decibels at times. "It's about as good as you're going to get. It's never quiet [in Miami]," he said, rubbing his dirt-caked University of Notre Dame cap with blackened fingertips.

Guillermina Hernandez, age 65, is used to the noise too. From the street-front counter of her Little Havana café, Hernandez pronounced the city's noise as more than tolerable. Usually, she said, pointing with her chin to a rain-slicked Calle Ocho, "It's tranquil like this." As two men sipped fruit juice and a little abuela waited for a cafecito, rain poured on the cars driving past. The sound meter ticked up to 70 decibels. "There aren't enough people for it to be a [noisy] city," Hernandez said. "New York, that's a city."

It may not be New York, but it's pretty damn loud from Al Matias's perspective. Matias, a City of Miami Police officer, spends his nights bombarded with sirens, often his own. Speeding toward an accident scene on a Friday night, Matias switched on the electric howl — about 85 decibels from inside the car with the windows down — and maneuvered through traffic. "You don't even hear your sirens. You're just focused on the car in front of you," he said. "Your adrenaline really starts to pump up. You basically get tunnel vision."

For the average Joe like me, simply driving home from work with the windows down is worth about 77 decibels, as loud as a noisy laundry machine. With the windows (and top) up in my little, old convertible, the noise meter still registered in the low seventies.

Although you probably can't meditate at Meditation Park in Kendall, a sliver of green lost in an ocean of traffic — 75 decibels on a Friday afternoon — you can find quiet in Miami.

Take the lobby of the Miami-Dade Courthouse for example. Around noon on a Friday, as lawyers whispered into cell phones and clerks pushed document carts across the smooth floor, my decibel meter rarely climbed above 65. Later in the afternoon, during the "rush hour" before closing, the volume goes up a few notches, said twenty-year-old courier Sadik Harper.

The fishing pier at the Charles Deering Estate on Biscayne Bay is a good place to "get a piece of mind," said Arthur Ross, age 61. Casting for barracuda with his uncles Nathaniel Perrine and William Russ on Thanksgiving morning, Ross kept conversation to a minimum. The chatter of distant canoeists and the breath of wind on the flat water barely registered 52 decibels.

Roberto Vidal, age 26, finds his peace of mind playing Frisbee golf at Kendall Indian Hammocks Park. As the sun set on a recent Friday, Vidal walked the park with a gym bag full of discs and sixteen-ounce Budweisers. The sound meter hovered around 54 decibels. Sometimes, he said, the city intrudes on his solitary revelries. Occasionally a frat boy type will drive by and yell "Frisbee faggot" out the car window. "I kind of whistle at them, give them a thumbs-up," Vidal joked.

There's little to intrude on the stillness of the Everglades, home to the lowest sound reading in my wanderings. Only feet from the visitor center parking lot at Shark Valley is a place that defines tranquility. The combined volume of squawking herons, splashing fish, and swaying saw grass added up to 55 decibels at its peak. When the wading birds piped down, my meter dipped below its 50-decibel threshold to a range somewhere between a hushed library and a gentle rainfall.

Peace and quiet, finally.


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