Jennifer Nugent-Hill spent years helping her home island of St. Croix recover after Hurricane Hugo; touts importance of the company’s Disaster Management Workshops.
By Hilary Reeves
Jennifer Nugent-Hill was living on the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix on Sept. 17, 1989 when Hurricane Hugo ripped through, destroying a burgeoning economy in its wake.
“It was as if a bomb had been dropped on the island,” said Nugent-Hill, director of governmental and community affairs for Tropical Shipping. “We had nearly 24 hours of 200 mile-per-hour winds. I was living in an apartment that seemed solid enough – it was a concrete structure, so there was a sense of comfort, but we lost our roof very early on during the hurricane. That night, I remember saying to my husband, ‘well, I guess this is the way we’re going to die.’ The power of the wind is something that will be forever etched in my memory.”
The Virgin Islands hadn’t seen a storm of any real magnitude for more than 20 years. Hurricane Betsy pummeled St. Croix with 90 mile-per-hour winds on Aug. 12, 1956 – since then, only the occasional Tropical Storm.
“All of a sudden, here is this Hurricane Hugo that no one thought was going to be more than a regular tropical storm,” she explained. “The best part of this story for me was that we survived it, but 90 percent of the homes and major businesses on St. Croix lost their roofs. The oil refinery storage tanks were crushed like aluminum foil by the force of the wind. Trees were stripped bare of their leaves. The morning after, we took machetes and begun cutting our way through downed trees to clear roads to go check on relatives. I rejoiced to see that my parents’ home still had its roof. When I told my mother my roof was gone, she said, ‘well, you must not have prayed hard enough.’ That’s a Caribbean mother for you,” she laughed.
Serving the islands
Nugent-Hill was born in Jamaica, but raised on St. Croix. She went to school on the neighboring island of St. Thomas, finishing her bachelor’s degree in social welfare sciences there at the University of the Virgin Islands in 1979. She obtained her master’s degree from the University’s St. Croix campus in 1981.
“I was always interested in the welfare of our community, more specifically in how to help create public policy through strategic partnerships and alliances that would help enhance the lives of people.”
She worked for two years as a social worker while pursuing her master’s degree. After graduation, she began working for the Department of Labor in the Virgin Islands, a subset of the U.S. Department of Labor.
“I was working on a program called the Comprehensive Employment Training Program,” she said. “It was an innovative program, in terms of how the U.S. Department of Labor pursued partnerships with the private sector in training and placement of dislocated workers, youth, and ex-offenders in good-paying jobs. It was a test of my selling skills to get companies willing to hire persons with limited work experience and not-so-stellar backgrounds, but we did it. We turned around a lot of lives for the better.”
Nugent-Hill eventually took over as the Executive Director of the Private Industry Council, where she served for 12 years working to strengthen the economy of her beloved home island before the storm hit and destroyed everything.
The weeks following Hurricane Hugo saw island residents desperate for food and shelter. The initial response from the federal government wasn’t perceived as first responders sent to help the people of St. Croix. It was more to enforce law and order – a military style response.
“Yes, unfortunately there was looting, most people were in a state of shock and panic – no electrical power, no telephone lines, grocery stores owners arming themselves to protect their damaged facilities – there was simply chaos,” said Nugent-Hill “The National Guard was sent in to setup curfew; we thought we’d become a police state. The military branch evacuated citizens who wanted to leave the island, and lots of families ended up sending their children to live with relatives on the mainland. That changed the social fabric of our island community. I had a difficult time with the initial response, that as an American citizen my country’s first response to a natural disaster was with military force. It ignited my passion towards how we could make disaster-responsiveness more people-first focused. The governor in charge of the Territory at the time was taking a lot of flak from all sides for not having an effective community disaster response and recovery plan. I remember saying, ‘I’ve got to get involved at the community level.’”
In the early months of 1990 – post Hugo – Virgin Islands Governor Alexander Farrelly appointed Nugent-Hill to serve as the Commissioner of Housing, Park and Recreation with the full support of the Virgin Islands Senate. She was confirmed to carry out the grueling task of rebuilding the public housing stock and emergency housing facilities, as well as the Territory’s public recreation facilities – from baseball stadiums to cricket fields to basketball courts – all vitally necessary to reestablishing a sense of “normalcy” to the islands.
“My goal was to rebuild housing, and to come up with a master plan for the replacement of the islands’ social outlets,” she said. “It was a necessary part of the Territory’s economic revitalization strategy post-hurricane. It was a most stressful job, but an amazing journey learning how to build relationships and forge partnerships.”
New beginnings at Tropical
It was during this most stressful time in the island’s recovery that Nugent-Hill for the first time heard Tropical Shipping CEO Rick Murrell speak up on behalf of the people of St. Croix.
“I was listening to the local radio station for daily updates on the island’s recovery,” she said. “He was on the local affiliate of CBS news with Marilyn Quayle the wife of (then Vice President Dan Quayle), talking about the devastation on St. Croix, and the impact it had on his employees and his company. It was a very powerful, yet thoughtful approach by a businessman to raise the flag on the devastation of the hurricane and the island’s slow recovery. During the following years, I kept hearing about this company, Tropical Shipping. Of course I’d seen the Tropical containers – most islanders rely on their goods coming in on a container ship; they were a very familiar sight – but I still didn’t know anything about the company.”
Nugent-Hill, always keen on building public-private partnerships, had worked with several of Tropical’s customers who helped to rebuild some of the community’s baseball diamonds, sponsor summer camps, and help to further restore the social side of the territorial society.
The rebuilding of the island’s infrastructure was a challenging job, but housing had been rebuilt, banks were now offering housing loans, jobs were slowly coming back, communities were slowly recovery, and her time in public service was coming to an end. In January 1995, Gov. Farrelly was scheduled to leave public office, and Nugent-Hill had decided to take a break from full-time employment to raise her daughter, Kathryn.
“I had accepted a part time teaching position as an adjunct professor of public policy at the local university, where I could work a few days per week on my own terms,” she said. I received a call from a friend about a position at Tropical Shipping. I told them I didn’t know a thing about shipping, and I wasn’t interested in working full-time. I give thanks every day that friend persisted.”
Nugent-Hill joined Tropical Shipping in June of 1995 as the Island Manager for St. Croix, then in 1999 was promoted to Trade Manager for the U.S. and British Virgin Islands before becoming the Assistant Vice President for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands Trade Lane. She left the company in 2011 following the retirement of Murrell. In 2012, she returned to public service to serve as the Assistant Chief Executive Officer and Chief Operating Officer of the U.S. Virgin Islands Economic Development Authority.
When Murrell rejoined Tropical in 2014, so did Nugent-Hill, this time as the Director of Government and Community Affairs focused on building and retaining strategic community relationships and partnerships.
A new, ‘people-first’ approach to disaster management
Nugent-Hill credits Murrell for positioning Tropical as the Caribbean’s community-sensitive helpmate.
“The way he approaches our governmental and community affairs – he focuses on the big picture,” she said. “He sees down the road where roadblocks could come from that are detrimental, not just to our company, but especially to our shipping industry.”
And one of the biggest roadblocks, of course, is community resiliency in the wake of devastating natural disasters such as Hurricane Hugo, and/or man-made disasters.
“Public-private partnerships at the community level are essential to speedy disaster recovery, and Tropical views it in a way that not all companies do. We show community leaders how these partnerships can work – how they should work at the local level to build community resiliency.”
Caribbean islands are prone to a variety of natural and man-made disasters.
“It’s important for people to realize that each of our islands have different vulnerabilities,” she continued. “Not all islands are in the hurricane zone. Trinidad doesn’t get hurricanes. But it gets earthquakes. A recent 5.6-magnitude earthquake on Barbuda also bothered Anguilla – they’re on the same fault-line – but not its twin-sister island of Antigua, which is much closer. The ultimate goals of Tropical’s annual Disaster Management Workshops are sharing expert information on preparedness and encouraging relationships that lead to strong private-public partnerships.”
In 2017 Tropical will conduct a half-dozen workshops across the Caribbean, in partnership with emergency management agencies, industry associations such local chambers of commerce, and tourism organizations. The first workshop of 2017 was held in March in San Juan, Puerto Rico. More than 150 people attended the workshop, striving to build community resiliency through partnerships. This session was a joint sponsorship with sister company TOTE Maritime.
“The solution to effective disaster management is in the preparedness stage at the community level, and in the commitment to public-private partnerships. Quick recovery from disasters can’t be done without the private sector engagement; they’re the ones who have the resources to respond quickly. And on the other side, the islands need to know of our commitment, our availability and what we have to offer them, but the communication has to occur during the blue-sky season. It can’t occur under the gray skies.”
Nugent-Hill concluded with her personal preparedness mantra: “for what we know can happen, we have no excuse not to prepare.”