Researcher taps pageant experience in flood assistance

In her role as Miss Earth-Thailand, Grace Tungtisanont aided flood victims in her homeland.

To say Niratcha (Grace) Tungtisanont has a personal stake in the research she’s conducting at Clemson University is an understatement.

A native of Thailand, the Clemson Ph.D. candidate in business management is researching better ways to recover from the economic and human devastation that often accompanies natural disasters. And the former Miss Earth-Thailand has witnessed first-hand the havoc monsoon flooding has wreaked on her homeland.

“The research is a very personal thing to me. Our hope is our findings will ultimately have policy implications in my country. If we can show proof of our findings and establish recovery solutions, it could help for future flooding recovery,” Tungtisanont (pronounced TUNG-tee-sa-non) said.

Monsoon flooding in Thailand can be devastating and one of the worst was in 2011 when Bangkok and surrounding areas were under water. More than 800 lost their lives and nearly $46 billion in damage was incurred, including the loss of more than 7,700 square miles of agricultural land.

As an adult, Tungtisanont visited many of the flooded areas in her humanitarian role as Miss Earth-Thailand. But the road that brought Tungtisanont to the front lines of her future research interest started on a whim.

Grace Tungtisanont was first runner-up in the Miss Universe-Thailand pageant.

Grace Tungtisanont was first runner-up in the Miss Universe-Thailand pageant.

“I was coming home after receiving my master’s in agricultural and resource economics at the University of Arizona, when I decided to enter the Miss Universe pageant to make my year home more rewarding. I told myself, ‘I know I can do this.’ ‘’

More the academic, and “not into girly things,” Tungtisanont had some work ahead of her. She ate healthy, worked out and took good care of herself in preparation for the pageant. “I never wore make-up or high heels before the pageant, so I had to practice walking in heels and learn how to use cosmetics.”

She finished as first runner-up in the 2011 Miss Thailand pageant. In Thailand, the pageant’s first runner-up assumes the role of Miss Earth-Thailand, a position that, as luck would have it, played right into Tungtisanont’s strengths.

The primary responsibility of Miss Earth-Thailand is helping to preserve the planet by advocating for mother Earth. For Tungtisanont, this included participating in humanitarian events such as visiting flooded areas, distributing emergency kits and offering encouragement to the victims.

“I met people who were hopeless. Many had lost their careers, and some lost family members. It’s a setback from which some people never recover,” she said.

Tungtisanont is teaming up with Clemson management professors Aleda Roth and Yann Ferrand, and Georgia State University’s Thomas Mroz in examining the recovery phase of post-disaster operations, with a focus on Thailand’s natural disaster recovery. While much attention is placed on disaster operations, little research information exists on the recovery phase of a natural disaster and helping survivors adjust to life after the catastrophe.

“Put simply, this research is about getting people used to the new normal, so they can get on with their lives,” said Roth, Burlington Industries Distinguished Professor of Supply Chain Management at Clemson. “Everybody’s waiting for the government to get the people re-engaged, but it cannot possibly deal with this. So, citizens and businesses need to take ownership.”

At this point in their study, the researchers have determined that in terms of per capita income, the recovery process is much more difficult in industrial areas than rural areas.

Though Tungtisanont has a personal interest in the Clemson research, she said the findings can apply to almost any natural disaster.

“The hope is that as our research continues, more data will provide answers to questions like where should resources be placed, before or during a disaster? Rebuilding lives is a long-term process. If we can provide solutions, victims who otherwise might give up hope, could adjust and live very fulfilling and productive lives.”