I went to New Orleans last week to debate Newt Gingrich. That was the easy part. The debate also included libertarian Doug Casey, and the funny part is that however much a conservative like Newt and a liberal like me may disagree, at least we agree that for fundamental tasks like dealing with dangerous drugs, for instance, you need a government, which landed us on the same side more often than one might expect and kept the audience in positive spirits.

Which is the goal in New Orleans these days.

Everything you’ve always loved about New Orleans is still here, my driver told me on the way in from the airport, affecting the positive tone I would hear from people for the next two days, before he told me his own harrowing story of survival. About how he lived on a street where there were only two livable houses, and his house, with a still-leaking roof, was one of them. About how he lived without electricity for the first few months he was back, which was “not so bad.”

You don’t have to veer very far off the highway to see total devastation of the sort you’ve seen on the television news, but it’s stunning to see 10 minutes after you’ve passed through baggage claim at a major American airport. How did I get to a war zone in the Third World so quickly? It’s just stunning. It doesn’t look or feel like America. And there it is. Devastation. All you want. How much can you take?

You can take “recovery tours,” or someone can drive you around. You can walk around, drive around, look out your window. Water lines are everywhere. Even where everything is supposed to be all fine, there are signs that it isn’t: buildings still boarded up, notices of when something is reopening, or whether it isn’t.

Half the city hasn’t come back, so there aren’t many people around. Inside every store I go into, someone wants to help me. I walk around the French Quarter and it is early, but the bars are empty, the souvenir stores are empty, every place is empty. Everyone tells me about how the real estate agents were just there and how great that was. Good for the real estate agents.

Everyone has a story. It’s as if every person you talk to is ready for his newsmagazine interview, with one story more harrowing than the next: the woman who stayed with her invalid mother, riding out the storm for three days because there was no one to carry her mother out as the roof was blown off over their heads; the man who cajoled his aging parents, who had never left before; the people collecting animals; the children collecting toys and special mementos from houses they would never see again. Just typical stuff.

And what can you do to help?

When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.

You tell others to come. It’s not perfect, but they’re trying. The restaurants are back. The people are amazing. They need us to go. And spend.

I live in Los Angeles. I am shopping in New Orleans.

I go to Rubinstein’s, the department store in downtown New Orleans. There are dancers in costume at the front door, offering wine to shoppers as they come in. That’s me. I am the shopper. As I come in, I am the only person in the store. I look around. Wine at 2:30 while shopping? Sure.

We have a new shoe department for ladies upstairs, they tell me.

Upstairs, two women offer to help me. Another offers me a champagne cocktail. I have nine hours of travel ahead of me — once I start.

High-heeled black suede boots.

Perfect for travel.

How much?

More than I’ve ever spent on a pair of shoes or boots in my life.

I try them on. I walk around. One more customer comes in. The sales staff tells me how much they like them. They tell me their heroic tales.

I buy the boots.

Remember New Orleans.

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