Wildlife and Storms
Hurricanes and Wildlife
While the FWC is always concerned about Florida’s fish and wildlife resources, public safety is the agency’s number one priority, especially before, during and after hurricanes and tropical storms.
The best way people can stay safe and help wildlife under storm conditions is to be alert and give wildlife their space. People should not attempt a wildlife rescue during or after a hurricane or tropical storm if that would place them in a potentially dangerous situation.
The FWC works cooperatively with many partners throughout the state to assess and address the impacts of hurricanes and tropical storms on wildlife populations, wildlife habitats and Florida’s ecology.
The best way people can stay safe and help wildlife under storm conditions is to be alert and give wildlife their space. People should not attempt a wildlife rescue during or after a hurricane or tropical storm if that would place them in a potentially dangerous situation. General information about living with wildlife and ways to prevent human-wildlife conflict can be found on our Living with Wildlife webpage.
Impacts to Wildlife
Alligators may be observed more frequently in flooded areas after a hurricane or tropical storm. As with all wildlife, treat alligators with respect, keep them at a distance and give them space. If you believe a specific alligator poses a threat to people, pets or property, call the FWC’s toll-free Nuisance Alligator Hotline at 866-FWC-GATOR (866-392-4286). The FWC places the highest priority on public safety and will dispatch one of our contracted nuisance alligator trappers to resolve the situation. Find more information about living with alligators.
While communities are cleaning up after the storm, bears may take advantage of the easy access to food attractants awaiting pickup by waste service officials. If you live in bear country in Florida, be aware of bears searching for food in your neighborhood. If spoiled food is included in post hurricane debris, secure it separately from non-food debris. Report any problems with bears or potential for human-bear conflict to FWC’s regional offices during business hours or after hours to the FWC Wildlife Alert Hotline at 1-888-404-FWCC.
Heavy rains may force some burrowing owls to leave their burrows until water levels recede. After the storm, you may see burrowing owls seeking shelter in unusual places, such as in the eaves of a house or perched on man-made structures. Please give these owls space, and they will return to their burrows on their own. Whenever possible while recovering from the hurricane, please take care to avoid burrowing owls’ burrows when clearing debris, parking vehicles, staging materials or equipment, or repairing damaged structures.
Storms like hurricanes can result in fish kills due to low dissolved oxygen, changes in salinity or other impacts. To report fish kills, download the FWC Reporter application, call the Fish Kill Hotline: 800-636-0511 or report a fish kill online. To learn more about how storms can cause fish kills, visit our hurricanes and fish kills article.
Gopher tortoises generally inhabit high and dry habitats, but they may occur in coastal dunes or in areas that can flood during extreme weather events. During storms, individual gopher tortoises may leave burrows in lower lying areas and head for higher ground. Gopher tortoises may also seek shelter in their burrows during the storm, sticking their noses above water level or finding air pockets to breath within a flooded burrow.
Tortoises and their burrows are protected under state law. This includes flooded and collapsed burrows. Tortoise may occupy collapsed burrows and can dig themselves out of naturally collapsed burrows. If avoidance of burrows by 25 feet during clean-up activities is not possible, please contact your Regional FWC Gopher Tortoise Biologist for assistance.
You can help a tortoise in immediate distress, such as moving a tortoise in water to drier ground, but only if it is safe for you to do so. Never take a gopher tortoise into your home or move it to a different location. If a tortoise appears injured or has not moved within 12 hours or longer, please contact your Regional FWC Gopher Tortoise Biologist. Please also contact the FWC if you find a gopher tortoise in an unusual location like mangroves or debris piles following a storm.
After a storm, you may encounter a small animal that seems orphaned or abandoned. Rarely are animals actually orphaned; the parent may be searching for food or observing its young from a distance.Do not pick up baby animals or remove them from their natural environment. Instead, report wildlife you think may be injured or orphaned to the nearest FWC Regional Office.
When encountering injured wildlife, please contact the appropriate FWC-licensed wildlife rehabilitator in your area. A list of wildlife rehabilitators by county can be accessed here: Licensed Wildlife Rehabilitators.
For more information, visit our Injured and Orphaned Wildlife webpage.
Key deer may be impacted by loss of freshwater when low-lying areas are washed over by seawater. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the National Key Deer Refuge, is the lead agency monitoring and managing Key deer, and the FWC will work in close partnership with USFWS to survey and conserve this species post-storm. Although Key deer have generally been able to find fresh water, food and shelter to survive during past storms, follow any guidance from the USFWS on actions that you can take to assist Key deer.
Manatees can become stranded or trapped during and after a hurricane or tropical storm. Manatees stranded by storms may need immediate medical attention by wildlife experts. If you are aware of a stranded, trapped, injured or dead manatee, call the FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-3922. Do not attempt to move a stranded manatee yourself. The FWC works collaboratively with the public and a network of partners to rescue, rehabilitate and conserve manatees.
Red-cockaded woodpeckers live in family groups. The group’s cavity trees are in clusters, with each cluster consisting of one to 20 or more cavity trees. They are dependent on mature pine forest habitat and storm damage can have negative impacts for this species.
Loss or reduction of foraging habitat can cause decreased productivity for the woodpeckers and may also have impacts on translocation efforts by biologists.
Quick action to install artificial cavities on surviving mature trees is important to ensure the survival of birds after a storm that causes significant loss of trees in their habitat.
Sea turtles have a nesting strategy that accommodates natural storm events. Female sea turtles deposit several nests throughout the nesting season, essentially hedging their bets to make sure that even if a hurricane or tropical storm hits during nesting season, there is a high probability at least a few of the nests will incubate successfully. No storm season is a total loss for Florida’s nesting sea turtles.
Never dig up sea turtle nests or collect sea turtle eggs that may be found on the beach after the storm. These efforts may have unintended consequences to the incubating eggs or hatchlings and rarely result in eggs hatching.
Contact the FWC’ s Wildlife Alert Hotline at 1-888-404-FWCC to let the FWC know the location of washed-back, sick or injured sea turtles so they may be recovered and receive appropriate care.
Although storms can have short-term negative impacts on nesting shorebirds and seabirds, storms often create new nesting habitat. Please be aware that hurricanes and tropical storms may change where shorebirds and seabirds nest in coastal areas, and give them space for the best chance at nesting success.
You are more likely to see snakes with higher water levels post-storm. Most snakes you will encounter are likely to be nonvenomous and will be more scared of you than you are of them. If you see a snake, stay back. Snakes are not aggressive toward humans unless they feel threatened. They would much rather avoid encounters and will usually flee. To avoid snake bites, leave snakes alone, stay out of tall grass unless you wear thick boots, and keep hands and feet out of areas you can’t see.
Impacts to Wildlife Habitat
Major storms can cause landscape level changes in wildlife habitat. Understanding the impacts to wildlife and their habitats may take months or years.
Impacts to individual wildlife species will vary, potentially increasing preferred habitats for some species and decreasing the same for others.
For example, some species, such as screech owls, will benefit from the creation of new snags, downed woody debris and brush piles.
Hurricanes play a major role in aquatic ecosystem dynamics. Emergent and submersed plant communities are often damaged from higher water and wind driven erosion. Winds can uproot aquatic plants, especially those rooted in soft sediments. These uprooted plants are often seen floating or deposited along the shoreline following the storm. Also, strong winds, increased wave action and higher water levels may cause increases in nutrients and suspended solids. When this happens, lake water can switch from clear to muddy or murky. These changes in water quality often persist long after the storm has passed, slowing the recovery of submersed aquatic plants. FWC staff conduct surveys, assess changes in lake and freshwater system conditions, and adjust management plans if needed following the storm.
See our online article, "Effects of Hurricanes on Aquatic Vegetation and Fisheries in Florida Lakes" for more information.
In Florida’s estuaries and ocean systems, some animals create rocky or rock-like habitat. Coral, oyster and polycheate worm reefs are created by their namesake animals, and these reefs are architectural wonders. The many crags and crevices, and large walled structures we see as reefs are located off our shorelines. These intricate structures act to dampen wave energies from storm systems and directly protect shoreline property and upland fish and wildlife habitat from damage associated with extreme wave energy.
However, reefs themselves can be damaged by tropical cyclones. Coral reefs are complex communities and many branching and soft corals battered by storm waves can be significantly damaged. Loose materials (boats, crab and spiny lobster traps, marine debris, etc.) can beat against reefs and cause localized damage that takes hundreds of years to naturally repair. In estuaries, storms can move sediments around and bury oyster reefs. Despite this kind of damage, nature is remarkably resilient. Such damage to reefs often opens areas for numbers of species and individual corals to settle and grow creating a more diverse ecosystem. Sediments moved from one location to another often expose limerock substrate upon which oysters settle and new reefs develop.
Meadows of seagrass act to secure sandy sediments during the passage of storms. Because most of these flowering plant meadows occur sub-tidally, and when storm surges provide yet deeper water over top of them during the passage of these storms, they generally do not experience extensive damage. Much of the above ground shoot material in a seagrass bed may break free and end up stranded along the shoreline, but seagrass plants have a good amount of below ground material in their branching rhizome and root structures. The leaves and shoots quickly grow back after storm shearing occurs, almost like a grass lawn after being mowed. Seagrass is, however, susceptible to damage by burial under sediments moved around by storm currents and waves. Many seagrass beds grow in the shallow waters behind barrier islands, and tropical cyclones are well known for battering dunes and breaching these island structures. The sand along these systems has to go somewhere, and it often ends up covering the seagrass meadows behind them.
Seagrass communities are, however, adapted to living in such dynamic communities. Sediments moved around by these storms often create shallow shoals which are ideal for pioneer seagrass colonizers like Cuban shoal grass. Where seagrass meadows are lost in one area, they colonize and grow in areas newly suitable to sustain their growth. This maintains landscape habitat diversity and the associated diverse community of native fish and wildlife.
Coastal marsh and mangrove communities consist of grasses, shrubs and trees that create root networks which hold ever shifting sands and sediment in place along our shorelines. These communities generally grow along areas of lower wave energies, such as along sounds and bays behind barrier islands. Plant communities create natural buffers to the extensive wind and wave energy imparted during a hurricane. Waves coming ashore are buffered by the thick grass fringe associated with smooth cordgrass and black needle rush meadows. The network of dense plants associated with mangrove forests can reduce the amount of storm surge penetrating onto upland property, block heavy winds near the ground and form a wave break during storms. Coastal wildlife and fish seek and find shelter from these storms in dense branches of these mangrove forests as well.
During extreme storms, mangroves can loose their leaves and look lifeless after the storms pass. Some can be uprooted and float away becoming stranded on emergent sand bars and shorelines. Marine debris including man-made and organic materials can be pushed deep into mangrove forests and smother emergent root systems causing large area die-offs. Generally, these communities recover over time with new mangrove plants settling in the root network or denuded trees leafing out in the next growing season. Pioneer species can also recolonize areas where die-offs or damage occur.
Florida’s artificial reefs are popular destinations for saltwater fishing and SCUBA diving in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. Careful design considerations are incorporated during planning and permitting to ensure materials will remain durable and stable when experiencing extreme forces caused by a major storm event.
If you have information indicating that an artificial reef has been impacted by a storm please contact the FWC Artificial Reef Program at ArtificialReefDeployments@MyFWC.com. This information is used to provide feedback for future planning and to update the accuracy of Florida’s published artificial reef locations and online interactive map.
Impacts to Invasive Species and Captive Wildlife
Captive wildlife can escape during natural disasters. After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the FWC instituted additional requirements for captive wildlife owners to reduce the threat of escape or injury of captive wildlife. Critical Incident Disaster Plans are required for all license holders.
After the critical incident passes, FWC captive wildlife investigators contact all facilities to assess any damage to facilities and the health and whereabouts of all animals in their possession.
Fire ants cling to each other to form a tight “floating ball” of ants when in water. It’s best to avoid the ants if encountered during flood conditions.
Natural disasters such as hurricane-level winds and flooding can contribute to the spread of invasive species. Citizens can help by reporting sightings of nonnative fish and wildlife, including high priority species such as Burmese pythons, to the FWC at 888-Ive-Got1 or report the sighting online at IveGot1.org. Wind and flood waters also can spread plant seeds, spores and other plant life and create new infestations of invasive plant species. Invasive plant biologists conduct surveys following storms to help identify new infestations and formulate treatment plans. Plants uprooted and moved by flowing waters due to a major storm also can create hazards on bridges and water control structures. Staff monitor these areas and take management action to prevent harm to property and human health.