Jefferson Parish's emergency preparedness guru, the affable Walter Maestri, says the destruction caused by hurricanes is the rent we pay to live in a place as wonderful as South Louisiana.

He's right.

Katrina and Rita weren't the first tropical cyclones to smash into the Bayou State, and they won't be the last. More will come, and for those of us who choose to reside down here, there will be rent to pay.

But will that rent be comparable to what landlords in Palm Beach, Fla., or in Mexican slums haul to the bank? Ah, that's the question.

For years, there's been a strong anti-New Orleans sentiment across the state of Louisiana. Travel any farther west than Kenner, and you'll meet people with more disdain for the Big Easy than Russia ever felt during the Cold War.

This is true despite the fact that New Orleans is the center of commerce for the entire state. As goes the economy of New Orleans, so goes the economy of Louisiana.

I think people are starting to realize that, and many who, for years, would have been content to break the Mississippi River levee somewhere around Lake Maurepas now agree that New Orleans needs to be rebuilt and protected.

That last part — the protection of New Orleans — is where the debate will rage for years to come.

It's impossible to talk about protecting New Orleans without first bringing up the restoration of the coast. As even national politicians now recognize, New Orleans is not a viable city without a healthy and vibrant marsh buffer.

But restoring the marsh will be as monumental a challenge in post-Katrina Louisiana as it was pre-Katrina. Why? For a couple of reasons.

First off, Katrina and Rita tag-teamed the state, the second impacting what the first missed, and effects to the coast were staggering. The marsh has been slowly dying since 1927, when the river was leveed, and tropical systems have a cumulative impact on what remains. To put it simply, there's much more marsh that needs to be restored after these two wicked witches roared ashore.

But secondly, and far more importantly, Louisianians still lack the fortitude to do what needs to be done to restore the coast. Even the watered-down fixes that are part of the $14 billion Louisiana Coastal Area plan, if the money is ever approved by Congress, will be fought tooth and nail by citizens who are adversely impacted by them.

Consider this: Unabated erosion has turned Plaquemines Parish south of, say, Myrtle Grove, into a skinny ribbon of fragile land "protected" by levees. Much of that narrow strip of land was reclaimed by the Gulf and river during Katrina. So which makes more sense for the future of Louisiana — to let the river have what she wants and forego settlements in lower Plaquemines or to patch the levees, pump the water out and again cut off the few remaining marshes from their lifeblood?

Obviously, the former is the right choice, but state and federal officials have been working tirelessly since the storm hit to effect the latter.

Here's another example. Residents of St. Bernard Parish have been complaining for years that the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet not only destroyed their swamps and marshes but it would give storm-surge water an easy and direct avenue into their homes.

State and federal officials covered their ears, and now St. Bernard residents' worst fears have become reality.

But why were the cries ignored in the first place? The answer's simple: because closing the MRGO would cost jobs in the port of New Orleans.

Well guess what? Once New Orleans is up and running again, jobs will trump all other concerns. Is there a politician in existence with the guts to tell hundreds of port workers who were displaced by Katrina and returned to New Orleans to pick up the pieces of shattered lives that they're now out of work?

Ain't gonna happen.

Even though St. Bernard Parish residents have been vindicated — just as they predicted, their parish bore the brunt of a major hurricane — the MRGO levee will be patched and the channel left open for the fewer than 700 ships per year that use it.

What about the overall LCA plan? We all say we're 100 percent behind funding for coastal restoration, but if that funding is approved and the LCA plan is put into action, homes will be destroyed, jobs will be lost and communities will have to be abandoned.

Do you still support coastal restoration if your house or your town is on the chopping block?

Coastal restoration — in essence, the very tenability of South Louisiana — will force us to make some very difficult decisions.

Katrina and Rita have made that painfully obvious.