When the Mountain Mumbles – The Other Harry Truman and Why He Matters Now


My grandpa likes to tell a story about a man who lived on a mountain.

The man’s name was Harry Randall Truman (no relation to the former president) and the mountain was Mt. St. Helens in southern Washington. Truman, an octogenarian, loved the mountain and the lake that surrounded it like a father loves his particularly large son. He owned and adored the Mt. St. Helens Lodge, a small inn next to Spirit Lake.

When the mountain began rumbling with volcanic activity in the weeks leading up to May of 1980, scientists and government officials began warning residents of the area to evacuate. Truman, however, headstrong and certain in his beliefs, would hear none of that. He would scold the government and ramble against what he was sure were its no-good conspiracies. “This area is heavily timbered, Spirit Lake is in between me and the mountain, and the mountain is a mile away,” he would say. “The mountain ain’t gonna hurt me.”

Harry Randall Truman, of course, died in a rage of fiery magma.

So I wonder on days like this: what are some New Yorkers thinking?

Today, the President of the United States – a man who has access to more intelligence, more scientific surveillance, more general information, and more of a motivation to save American lives than anyone else in the world – left his vacation, walked in front of dozens of rolling television cameras and said plainly, “I cannot stress this highly enough:  If you are in the projected path of this hurricane, you have to take precautions now.  Don’t wait. Don’t delay…To sum up, all indications point to this being a historic hurricane.”

FEMA, the United States’ Federal Emergency Management Agency – the office whose job it is to tell people when to get out of a place – has issued emergency warnings up and down the east coast.

The National Hurricane Center, on its latest public advisory, writes emphatically, “AN EXTREMELY DANGEROUS STORM SURGE WILL RAISE WATER LEVELS BY AS MUCH AS 6 TO 11 FEET ABOVE GROUND LEVEL IN THE HURRICANE WARNING AREA.”

Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, declared a state of emergency. Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s mayor, has also issued evacuations in several counties. With those evacuations, the state and local agencies working under the above two officials have scheduled a “system-wide shutdown” of buses, Access-A-Ride, subways, Long Island Rail Road, and Metro-North Railroad.

The mountain ain’t gonna hurt me?

Of course, in spite of all this, said one Rockaway Beach resident, speaking the minds of many others, “Sometimes the people who make the calls just want to save their asses.”

That may be the case. But there are days for idealism and political intrepidity. There are days to stand up and bellow condemnations of the government. There are days for Republicans, and those who believe as such, to stand up and claim that “ larger intervention means less practicality.” And there are also days when you need to get out of the way of a vicious hurricane.

Harry Randall Truman put it worst when he told a reporter that “I don’t have any idea whether it will blow…but I don’t believe it to the point that I’m going to pack up.”

It will, New York, and you should.