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The roar at their door

For the Morgans, the race rings loud and clear through their trackside condo.

By TOM ZUCCO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 22, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- Bill Morgan, a big man who fought fires for 22 years, served on an aircraft carrier and doesn't back down from much, peeked out his front door Thursday morning and took a look around.

"How loud," he asked in a voice barely above a whisper, "is it going to be?"

He smiled weakly, as though he already knew the answer.

Morgan, 66, and his wife, Loleta, 61, rent Unit 499 at the Waterfront Park condo complex at Fifth Avenue S and First Street. Their front door faces the Bayfront Center parking garage.

It's also about 30 feet from Turn No. 3 of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. He could turn on his garden hose and water the track.

Friday morning, their blinds were drawn, the air conditioner was cranked to high, and the volume on the TV was eight clicks past blaring.

As the unseen race cars flew by behind the concrete barrier, even simple conversation was impossible. It was like living inside a chainsaw. Or a scene from some B-grade horror movie. Attack of the Gigantic Bees.

"My neighbor gave me a fist full of these, and I took some out of some old pill bottles," Bill Morgan said, pointing to a small pile of cotton balls on a table by the door.

"I keep answering the telephone. But it ain't ringing."

"If it gets too bad," he added, "we'll go to my son's house in Sarasota. But they really don't have accommodations for us. It's a small house. I'm getting too old for the sofa."

So they'll ride the race out, along with about half of the residents in the 35-unit complex. They know the race is good for the city. That they'll be inconvenienced only for the weekend. And that no matter how much they hope it does, nothing stays the same.

"Now, this won't go on all night, will it?" he asked.

According to a device that measures sound, the noise inside the condo averaged 86 decibels when the cars were racing Friday, just short of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's legal limit of 90 decibels for an eight-hour day in an industrial setting.

On the front walk outside the Morgans' condo, the level regularly measured above 110 decibels, with a high of 116.

Loud noise isn't just an uncomfortable or annoying byproduct of life. Long-term exposure is known to cause stress, which can lead to emotional and behavioral problems and even illness.

Some 30-million people are exposed to harmful levels of noise each day, according to the National Institute for Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Altogether, hearing loss afflicts an estimated 28-million Americans.

"We could get in the shower and pull the door shut, hon," Bill Morgan said. Loleta Morgan looked at him and shrugged. "Or we could take a lot of walks."

There aren't many complexes like Waterfront Park left in this part of downtown. Built in the 1950s and '60s, most of them have given way to chic, expensive condo or apartment buildings. The building may be old -- Bill Morgan thinks they'll tear it down in the next couple of years -- but the grounds are meticulous, and the folks here tend their geraniums, pentas and periwinkles almost as if they were family.

The Morgans, who have been married 41 years and live in Pekin, Ill., have wintered in St. Petersburg the past three years. Bill Morgan, a retired firefighter, and Loleta Morgan, a retired cook, rent the condo because it fits their budget.

"We were real lucky to find this," Bill Morgan said. "It's not fancy, but it's nice. We can't afford the new condos, and it's sad in a way to see the city change.

"When the money moves in, people like us have to go."

First Deputy Mayor Tish Elston said that as of late Friday afternoon, as the races were ending, the city had received only one noise complaint.

Two callers to the Times also weighed in on the noise.

"This is just a hell to have to live here with this noise," said Josephine Hall, who lives in the Carlton Towers on Third Street. "It's an outrage. I suppose it's all about money."

Added Dana Hangartner, who lives on 19th Avenue N, "It's horrendous, and I'm 22 blocks away. It sounds like a swarm of bees out there."

But at least this year, the Morgans are committed. They moved in Feb. 1 and will leave April 1. The stay in Florida is their Christmas present to each other. "We don't need things as much we need this," Morgan said. They'll come back next spring, he said, although they might come a few weeks later.

"Aw, we can live with it," he said. "I wish them (the drivers) a lot of luck."

The cars screamed by again, and he looked out the window.

"I just hope they don't miss that turn out there."

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