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Weathering the Storm: Alumni Outreach Helps Katrina Victim

Posted February 7, 2006

Living on the Mississippi Gulf Coast for 12 years, Electrical Engineering graduate Diane (Sandberg) Johnson ’91 and her family had been through several hurricanes, but nothing could prepare them for the devastation that would be wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

“We never worried about flooding,” said Johnson, “We’ve been through hurricanes before, but they were only Category 2 storms. We were told we couldn’t get flood insurance,” said Diane of her Diamondhead, MS home, “Our house was 30 feet above sea level.”

But Katrina broke all the rules, turning Diane’s life upside down and sending her back to her hometown in New England for help and support. She is grateful that she and her family were unharmed by the storm, but devastated by the damage to her home and community. Her engineer’s mindset has given her a singular focus on rebuilding and returning her children’s lives back to a degree of normalcy as quickly as possible.

For the Johnson family, the ordeal began on August 28, 2005. As the severity of the storm became apparent, Diane and her children took refuge in the shelter of the nearby Stennis Space Center while her husband, Jeff, stayed behind with friends to keep watch on their home. Recalls Diane, “The first part of the storm came through, but on the other side of the eye the winds picked up to over 150 miles per hour.”

By 7:00 a.m. Monday morning, before the worst of the storm made landfall Diane and Jeff lost phone contact. Diane had no idea of the devastation that was taking place at her home and surrounding community as Katrina made her way onshore.

Concerned about Jeff, Monday evening Diane struggled to drive down I-10 just a few miles home to check on his safety, but debris blocked her way and warnings from authorities about the dangers from snakes and alligators uprooted by major flooding near her home sent her and her children back to the Space Center.

She returned on Tuesday and was able to get closer to her neighborhood. Diane was shocked by what she found. Homes and property were unrecognizable. Despite the area’s elevation, flood waters from the Jordan River had engulfed her neighborhood. “It really hit home when I saw the neighborhood pool. It was under 14 feet of water.”

As she got closer to her home, Diane began honking her car horn for Jeff who emerged unscathed. Diane’s relief soon turned to sadness as Jeff told her their entire first floor had been flooded by five feet of water and that all of their life belongings on their first floor had been damaged extensively.

The Johnsons determined that Diane and their two children, Brittany and Brandon, should head to Diane’s hometown of Ellington, CT, while Jeff stayed behind to begin gutting the home.

His employer, Tennessee Gas Company, arranged to evacuate the family by helicopter to Birmingham, AL where they picked up a flight to Hartford.

Once in Connecticut, Diane sprung into action, putting her engineering skills to work to locate and materials for rebuilding. She was fortunate to be in the good hands of her father, Bob Sandberg, a well-connected local contractor who knew where to find the resources for the job. One supplier, Bob turned to first was Scott Channel '86, president of National Vinyl Products and also an alumnus of the College.

“When Bob explained Diane’s plight, I knew I wanted to help and figured I could get my suppliers to sell her new windows at cost,” recalls Scott.

To thank him, Bob and Diane visited the company and took Scott out to lunch. “As what frequently happens, Diane mentioned she was an alumnus of Western New England College, I knew then I really wanted to help.” Scott was able to convince his supplier to deliver, “a better quality window at a significant savings” to the Johnsons.

“Scott has been just wonderful,” says, Diane who followed a caravan of family, friends, and two trailers packed with building materials from the north back to Diamondhead in November.

With the repairs to the first floor of her home well underway, Diane returned to Connecticut to retrieve her children. Before heading home for the holidays, she made a detour to Western New England College to meet with Kara Kapinos, vice president for advancement; Jennifer Kasparian, director of alumni operations; and Mary Mazzaferro, director of copywriting services, who had been in communications with Diane throughout her Connecticut stay.

During the visit Diane was thrilled to tour the much changed campus and enjoyed reminiscing through Sleith Hall. She was able to visit with former faculty members such as Dr. Said Dini and catch-up with Director of Counseling Services Wayne Carpenter.

”My visit to WNEC was awesome. The growth and development that has endured over the past several years is tremendous – such as the Healthful Living Center, Athletic fields, snack bar, cafeteria, and residence dorms!  It was so nice to see the campus along with several familiar and smiling faces. Jennifer and Mary were great tour guides and I appreciate the time they took out of their busy schedules to show me my alma mater. Thanks ya’ll!”

At the close of her visit, Diane was presented with a replacement diploma as her original had been lost in the flooding.

If you would like to send a note to Diane, you can locate her through our online Alumni Directory.

Click here to view before and after pictures of Diane’s experience.



Western New England University is a private, independent, coeducational institution founded in 1919. Located on an attractive 215-acre suburban campus in Springfield, Massachusetts, Western New England University serves 3,955 students, including 2,575 full-time undergraduate students. Undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs are offered through Colleges of Arts and Sciences, Business, Engineering, and Pharmacy, and School of Law.


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