By Published: June 30, 2021

Sociology graduate student has won a grant from the American Sociological Association for her work with housing recovery among Houston-area immigrants

Disaster struck close to home for Melissa Villarreal, a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder, when Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in 2017.

Not long after Villarreal moved to Colorado from Houston where her family lives, the Category 4 hurricane’s high winds and flooding damaged her parents’ home. In the four years since, her parents and many other Houston-area residents are still recovering.

Melissa Villarreal

At the top of the page: ISS Astronaut's View of Harvey. Photo by AstroKomrade/Twitter Above: Melissa Villarreal

Drawing on her experiences coming of age in the disaster-prone state of Texas, Villarreal studies how vulnerable populations recover from disasters. Her work focuses specifically on housing recovery among Mexican-origin immigrants in the Houston area. 

“Growing up, I had been through so many hurricanes,” Villarreal said. “I have memories of evacuating and being on the freeway for 19 hours trying to get away from Houston during Hurricane Rita. When I realized I could study people’s hurricane recovery experiences, that resonated with me because it’s so personal. This is the work I need to be doing.”

As Villarreal watched her immigrant parents’ struggle to rebuild their home and cope with exploitative contractors and shoddy construction work, she witnessed similar struggles occurring in the community where she grew up. She began to study hurricane recovery from the perspective of Mexican immigrants living in Houston to shine a light on the difficulties they’ve had and the support they’ve received through community-based organizations. 

For Villarreal’s parents, mold developed in their home. Her mom became sick and couldn’t live there for a bit. The house was then not re-built properly, so many more repairs had to be done. Despite those challenges, her parents, who are Mexican immigrants, are documented and own their home, were lucky. They haven’t had to deal with all the challenges that undocumented immigrants have.

Melissa Villarreal

“At the end of summer 2019, there were tropical storms, which led to flooding again,” she said. “Because of COVID, Mexican-origin immigrants in Houston were told to shelter in homes that were still infested with mold left over from Harvey. They were being evicted because they lost their jobs. So there are all these things that throw a wrench into Harvey recovery for this population that four years later is still going on.”

In her dissertation, Villarreal plans to identify disaster recovery policies and programs and the ways they can harm immigrant families.  

“A lot of disaster research is quick response,” she said, “so we sometimes forget this is an ongoing disaster. Just because the water is gone doesn’t mean everyone is recovered.”

Melissa is an outstanding scholar who works tirelessly to ensure that her research makes a tangible difference in the world.”

Villarreal recently won a $14,000 Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant from the American Sociological Association. She was also awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship for her earlier work on this project, which came with a stipend of $34,000 a year for three years and covered tuition and fees for three years. 

In addition to her own research, Villarreal works as a graduate research assistant at the Natural Hazards Center in the Institute of Behavioral Science at CU Boulder, working on several research projects concerning the enhancement of the ethical quality of research, the increase of diversity in the field and the reduction of post-disaster vulnerabilities for marginalized communities. She is also a William Averette Anderson Fund Fellow, which is dedicated to advancing the success of underrepresented professionals in the hazards and disasters field. 

“Melissa is an outstanding scholar who works tirelessly to ensure that her research makes a tangible difference in the world,” said her graduate advisor, Lori Peek, a professor of sociology and director of the Natural Hazards Center. “The fellowships and accolades that she has received are a testament to the rigor and quality of her research and of its potential broader impacts for society.” 

This summer Villarreal will move back to Houston where she will continue her work in the community.

“I want to keep doing research and writing policy briefs that would directly benefit people,” she said, adding, “This is important work.”