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Take punitive action against BP now

By Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, Special to CNN
  • Gen. Russel Honoré: This disaster is the BP oil spill, not the Gulf oil spill
  • BP should be fined, he says, even $100 million, each day the oil is gushing
  • Money from fines should be used to help Gulf Coast and its people recover, Honoré says
  • General believes BP and negligent government regulators should face jail time

Editor's note: Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré commanded the military response to Hurricane Katrina. He retired from the U.S. Army in 2008 after 37 years, sits on the board of the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation and is an adjunct professor at Emory and Vanderbilt universities. He is the author of "Survival: How a Culture of Preparedness Can Save America and You from Disasters."

(CNN) -- It's interesting how many people have swallowed the BP public relations' bait to call the explosion from Deepwater Horizon oil rig the Gulf oil spill. We need to call it what it is: the BP oil spill. The federal government needs to take control and take punitive action against BP and any negligent government regulators immediately.

As a concerned citizen, preparedness speaker and author, and former commander of federal troops in disaster response, I watched with interest as BP brought out its big PR guns to protect its brand and its platoon of expert engineers, paid by BP to talk about how it happened and how they intended to fix it.

BP's reaction was much like Toyota's when it was confronted with safety issues. It, too, focused on PR to protect its brand, versus telling the truth, and sent out its engineers to talk about the problem and the fix.

The U.S. Coast Guard was the first responder. The Coast Guard's priority always is to save lives. They spent days looking for the 11 missing men. Meanwhile, BP took advantage of this time to make itself the authoritative voice in the news about the spill and blame other companies.

The No. 1 rule when dealing with disaster is to figure out which rules you need to break.
--Lt. Gen. Russel Honore

The U.S. government response was based on laws and rules that were created after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. After Valdez, the law changed to make the offending company responsible for the cleanup. A fund was created that all oil companies contributed to. If there was an emergency oil spill, a company could draw up to $75 million from this fund to fix the problem. But the fund was meant to help small wildcat operations, not huge conglomerates like BP.

Sticking to that regulation was part of the problem. The No. 1 rule when dealing with disaster is to figure out which rules you need to break. Rules are designed for when everything is working. A democracy is based on trust. BP has proved it can't be trusted.

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The government needs to change the game and make this a punitive effort. The government has been too friendly to oil companies.

The government should immediately freeze BP's assets and start to charge the corporation -- say $100 million -- each day the oil flows. The money could be held in a fund that U.S. government draws on to take care of the people along the Gulf Coast and pay the states for doing the cleanup.

Next, BP and the government bureaucrats who broke a law and put the public at risk need to go to jail.

The latest curse going around in southern Louisiana today is, 'BP you.'
--Lt. Gen. Russel Honore
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Video: Explaining BP's 'top kill' video

I remember when we were evacuating New Orleans on Saturday following Katrina. We pushed the survivors to the airport and a major called and said the pilots refused to fly the plane without a manifest and there was trouble with weapons scanners.

I told him to direct everyone to put the people on the planes as fast as possible, and we would to do the manifest en route or on landing. As a result, we flew 16,000 people out of NOLA airport in less than seven hours.

The priorities of the response to the spill must be to stop the flow of oil, prevent the oil from getting into the shoreline as much as possible, mitigate the effects of the oil in the ocean, and take care of the people who have lost their source of employment, such as fishermen and those in the tourist industry.

BP's job is to focus on stopping the flow of oil. The government needs to provide more military "command and control" of the situation. As BP works to stop the gusher, the government must address the problem of the oil coming ashore and take care of the people affected, possibly retraining them in other jobs. The government could do this by using the Stafford Act to fund the states so they can protect their shoreline and clean up the oil. Then, the long-term effects of the spill must be mitigated.

The people of the Gulf Coast, particularly South Louisiana, are still recovering from Katrina. They've been through hurricanes Rita, Gustav and Ike.

They know hurricane season is right around the corner and this BP oil spill has the potential to get much worse. And they don't trust BP.

In fact, the latest curse going around in southern Louisiana today is, "BP you."

Punitive action must start immediately, with BP supplying the money, from fines, to help the Gulf Coast get over this catastrophe.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Russel Honoré.