Disaster Discourse: The Hagerty Blog

The Hagerty Advantage – Our People: Celebrating Women’s History Month

March is Women’s History Month—a time dedicated to recognizing the incredible achievements made by women throughout history and to celebrating those working to build a better future for us all. At Hagerty, we value and commemorate our female professionals who lead with integrity, innovation, and excellence while propelling the success of our team. Several of Hagerty’s Deputy Directors, Carla Decina, Nicole Morales, Vanessa Castillo, and Tanya Shannon, are four of these key figures making a difference.

Carla Decina | Deputy Director of Preparedness  

Carla Decina, one of Hagerty’s Deputy Directors of Preparedness, is a project manager with over ten years of emergency management, public health, and economic development experience, supporting state and local governments as they prepare for, mitigate, respond to, and recover from emergencies and disasters. “My roots are a little bit non-traditional in terms of my background and how I got started in emergency management…When I graduated college, I wasn’t set on a specific career path, but I knew from my experience studying abroad that by seeing more of the world, I’d gain a better understanding of what I wanted out of my professional future.”

After several years teaching English in Europe, Carla returned to the United States (US) and received an opportunity to work for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a global humanitarian nonprofit, as a Program Coordinator supporting refugee resettlement. “I learned a tremendous amount about the challenges this unique population faces—which is essentially a displaced, disaster survivor community in its own right—and how our support was a significant determinant to their success in finding employment, enrolling in education, and navigating our health and financial systems.” Ultimately, this motivated her to obtain a Master of Public Health (MPH).

“I wanted to take the public health lens and apply it to populations that were displaced from natural or man-made disasters. After I graduated, it was a natural fit for me to figure out how to apply public health to emergency management in the US.”

Upon joining Hagerty in the Spring of 2017, Carla noted that she was one of very few individuals that held a background in public health within her division. While no one questions the important role of public health in emergency preparedness now, Carla feels that this relationship has not always been understood and has only recently come into sharper focus with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Given her role in supporting preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation activities at both the state and local levels, Carla is experienced in managing all aspects of the disaster lifecycle. This includes bringing diverse stakeholders together to address cross-cutting issues inherent to complex response and recovery operations across a wide range of disasters, spanning wildfire, flood, and earthquake disaster recovery coordination, COVID-19 response, and overall cost recovery within the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Public Assistance (PA) program.

Currently, Carla plays a key leadership role in managing Hagerty’s work with several clients across the State of California—her home state. “I come from an area in San Diego that is at high risk for wildfires and have personally experienced what it is like to have to evacuate, so finding an opportunity in my career where I can work within my state and support what I believe is on the cutting edge of disaster management and emergency resilience means a lot to me. I think it hits home when I am able to make a difference in the state I’ve grown up in and the communities I interact with day-to-day,” she said.

When asked about challenges she sees in the workplace, Carla reflected on the hurdles of being a young leader and underscored that leadership development is a winding path. She encourages emerging professionals to “trust your management style and what comes naturally to you—you are going to make mistakes, but each experience is an opportunity to learn, grow, and adapt to future situations.” Leadership is not about perfection, and mistakes have a lot to teach us if we let them.

Nicole Morales | Deputy Director of Response 

Nicole Morales is Hagerty’s Deputy Director of Response and is a disaster survivor turned disaster responder. As a proud native of New Orleans, Louisiana, Nicole experienced firsthand the devastating impacts of natural disasters when Hurricane Katrina hit her community in 2005. “I suspect that probably planted a seed for a path in emergency management early on,” she said. Now nearly two decades later, she serves as a leader at Hagerty by supporting local and state response efforts from coast-to-coast and leads multi-disciplinary teams in Emergency Operations Center (EOC), Command Center, and field-based environments.  

While she finds inspiration in many people around her, there are some that have shaped her role and life’s mission, “Like many, my parents have inspired me. My father was the longest-serving police officer in the country and devoted his entire life to public service. While my mother didn’t follow that same path, she taught me grit, resilience, and strength through her personal acts of community service and advocacy,” Morales said.   

She continued, “There are always moments after a disaster where you find yourself assessing the devastation and wondering, ‘Where do you even begin?’ and there is always a community member who has a vision of hope, of potential, and takes that very first step. Someone who has that resilience, that grit, that ability to see beyond the chaos and destruction right in front of you. Those individuals really inspire me.”   

On the topic of Women’s History Month and the challenges women are facing today, she said, “First, I want to underscore that women have never lacked the expertise, competence, or capability to perform in any job field or industry. We’ve possessed those traits since the beginning of time but have had barriers artificially placed, preventing our ability to fully contribute and participate.”  

“Secondly, I am honored every day to work with women who bring their very best to their jobs and then go home and do other full-time jobs as parents or caregivers. What I would say to women who are balancing all of those responsibilities is to bring those experiences into their emergency management careers. It is often the mothers and caregivers on our project teams that bring valuable perspective and point out considerations impacting those we serve, such as accessibility and childcare needs.”  

“Lastly, my existence here, my role at Hagerty, is the result of strong women who preceded me and made room for me and my voice at the table. If you find yourself at a table where there is no room, pull a chair up for yourself and pull up one for the woman behind you,” Morales said. Concluding, ultimately, the success and innovation of a team depend on its ability to respect and leverage diverse perspectives—and we all play a role in making room at the table. 

Vanessa Castillo | Deputy Director of Mitigation 

Vanessa Castillo, Hagerty’s Deputy Director of Mitigation, did not always plan on working within the emergency management industry. With a background in urban planning, Vanessa’s entrance to the field began with an internship for the Florida Division of Emergency Management (FDEM), where she supported Local Hazard Mitigation Plan (HMP) development for counties and municipalities. This opportunity then led her to Colorado, where, according to her, “It all evolved from there.”   

Within a year, she accepted a job as the Mitigation Specialist for the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (CDEM), where she took a deep dive into implementing mitigation projects and contributed her expertise to the successful implementation of approximately $65 million in the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) for one of Colorado’s largest disasters.   

When asked about what she is most proud of in her career, she reflected on a previous project supporting “wildfire mitigation in an area that desperately needed it.” According to Vanessa, her work is driven by an eagerness to see impactful mitigation projects come to completion so that communities can bounce back from future disaster disruptions and remove themselves from hazard risks.

“I like to think that what we do is preventative medicine.” Mitigation work “helps situate communities in such a way that when the next natural disaster hits, the impacts are less.”  

Since joining the Hagerty team in the Fall of 2019, she has leveraged her technical expertise to support clients nationwide in developing mitigation funding strategies and prioritization for the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program, including projects for drought and heat mitigation, flood risk reduction, wildfire mitigation, and residential property elevations.   

When asked about who inspired her the most in her career, Vanessa responded, saying the women in her life, specifically her female familial members, are her greatest inspirations. “These are women that are strong and, in some cases, raised their families on their own,” Castillo said. One of the challenges she believes some women face in the workplace today is a hesitancy to “own their space” and confidently leverage their knowledge and experience to add value to a project or conversation. If she could offer any advice to women looking to advance in their careers, Castillo says, “don’t be afraid to fill your space.”

Tanya Shannon | Deputy Director of Recovery 

One of Hagerty’s Deputy Directors of Recovery, Tanya Shannon’s interest in public service began at a young age. “My family, of half-Jewish and half-German descent, is from Germany where, during World War II, they sought refugee, or refugee-like, status with the US and were denied,” she said. While, fortunately, her grandmother and great-grandparents were able to seek refuge in a nearby church, Tanya has always been inspired by their story and became motivated to serve in the humanitarian assistance space.

While in college at the University of California, Davis, she served as the Director of the Survivors of Human Trafficking Program funded by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) at Opening Doors Inc. (ODI). She provided direct case management to victims of human trafficking. From this opportunity, Tanya became fascinated with the natural disaster impact component of her work and soon learned that direct service provision as a case manager was not going to be something she could do long term. “I just wanted to adopt all my kids, and that was not a good move for someone that was making less than $30,000 as a 24-year-old.”

She continued, “However, I learned I liked the puzzle pieces and bringing order to chaos, which is similar to the nature of initial response and recovery efforts.”

Ultimately, this led her to pursue her Master of Public Administration (MPA) in Emergency Management from Florida State University (FSU). Through her work at FSU, in partnership with the FDEM, Tanya designed and facilitated numerous trainings and exercises as the Program Coordinator for the FSU’s Center for Disaster Risk Policy (CDRP). As she progressed in her career, she served various roles at FEMA, including the position of PA Training Section Chief. Since joining the Hagerty team in January 2019, Tanya has supported communities across the Southeast in recovering from COVID-19 and a range of natural and manmade disasters.

When asked about who has inspired her most throughout her career, she said, “I’ve had three great mentors in my life. The first was my boss at Opening Doors, David Blicker. He helped me turn my internship into a career and essentially helped me grow up and understand what I wanted to do with my career. My second mentor was my boss at FSU, Rob McDaniel. He instilled in me the passion and respect that I have for this field. He taught me it’s not just a job; that the decisions made and actions taken have a significant impact on those around you and the larger community. Lastly, my boss at FEMA, John Wilmot, taught me how to navigate the world of politics, think strategically, and advocate for the things you believe in. I owe these three mentors more than I can express.”

On the topic of women in the workforce, she notes, “The field of emergency management has made great strides in terms of beginning to open the door to diverse perspectives. While we are seeing more women at the table, including Deanna Criswell, who is now the first female FEMA administrator, we still have a lot of work to do.”

“My advice for women in the field is to not wait for the opportunity. Something I frequently see in hiring is that women often feel that they must be 100 percent qualified before raising their hands or contributing to a conversation. Do not wait to raise your hand or wait on an invitation—pull up your own seat at the table and help others do the same.”