Search, Rescue and Mediate

Attorney Bonnie Schriner and her search and rescue dog are on call

Published in 2014 Colorado Super Lawyers — April 2014

Hurricane Katrina revealed the best and the worst of humanity, which Bonnie M.J. Schriner experienced from the front lines.

The devastating hurricane hit on a Monday, and by Tuesday she deployed with FEMA’s Colorado Task Force 1 mission, which included 31 rescue workers, four of whom were canine handlers. The New Orleans airport was closed, so they drove 29 hours from Denver to the Deep South, hauling more than 100,000 pounds of equipment.

She’d spent years preparing.

In the late 1970s, she had come across a powerful cover story in the Denver Sunday newspaper. It included a photo of a tall blonde in a bright orange jumpsuit, standing on a rubble pile with her German shepherd searching for earthquake victims in Guatemala. “I read the story and decided I wanted to do that work before I died,” says Schriner. “As I approached a significant birthday, I bought a training book, found a local search team and started practicing with them. I didn’t even own a dog, but the work seemed rewarding and the training, I soon learned, would become a lifestyle, using most of your discretionary time and money to accomplish the goal of becoming certified with a search and rescue team.”

She even changed her solo practice to fit her new lifestyle, forgoing litigation to focus exclusively on mediation, arbitration and collaborative law, primarily handling domestic relations cases. “As a search and rescue worker, I could be deployed at any time. I realized I couldn’t tell the court that I had to leave in the middle of a trial,” she says.

A few weeks after training her first dog, Delta, they became an official search team with the Colorado Task Force 1—Urban Search and Rescue, one of FEMA’s 28 task forces throughout the country. “We traveled to many places to work on rubble piles—Nebraska, Ohio, Florida, New Mexico, Tennessee, Texas, all over Colorado—to expose us to a wide variety of searching conditions.”

Katrina was their biggest mission.

Once Schriner and the CO-TF1 mission team arrived in New Orleans, it was hard, gritty work. They camped out at Zephyr Stadium, where all the major emergency response teams were stationed. Every morning they would pair up with teams that had boats—the Coast Guard, the EPA—and search house by house to remove victims trapped by the floodwaters. Ultimately, the team rescued 219 people and found 10 bodies, which they marked with GPS coordinates for recovery teams. The water was so high and polluted that the dogs couldn’t even do much searching, so Schriner’s outpost was primarily on the ground, helping with logistics and communications. Everyone was working up to 20 hours a day.

“I remember René, a Cajun man working in our food line,” she says. “When I asked how he happened to be there he answered, ‘Honey, the last time I saw my house it was just a roof under 19 feet of water, so I decided I needed to get up here and go to work helping to feed you workers.’”

She had to put Delta down last year, but Delta’s daughter, Tango Rita, is certified and Schriner’s new teammate.

Trudging through disaster zones gives Schriner a unique perspective. On her website, she includes a manifesto titled, “What I Learned in New Orleans”:

Every minute given to you is a gift.

Simple gratitude is a gift powerful enough to overcome any adversity.

Her immersion in disaster relief even informs Schriner’s law practice.

“It’s hard when you come back from your search and people are arguing about something minor,” she says. “I find myself really having to focus on what their dispute is and why it’s important to them, despite having seen tragedies that … impact more people.”

She has universal advice for clients: “Don’t be afraid to have a tough discussion. Don’t be afraid to talk about expectations. There are only two fears adults have: fear of not having enough and fear of not being enough.”

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