Hurricane Michael: Effects and Recovery in a Time of Changing Climate

Florida’s climate is already changing as evidenced by higher temperatures almost every year for the past 10 years. This year, Hurricane Michael astonished weather forecasters when it ripped through the Florida Panhandle and other southeastern US states. Unusually warm water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico quickly strengthened Michael to nearly a Category 5 hurricane in its last 24 hours before landfall.

The unusually powerful hurricane not only devastated communities but also impacted important habitat for rare and imperiled wildlife. Tropical storms and hurricanes routinely shape Florida’s beaches, salt marshes, and even inland forested habitats, but Hurricane Michael serves as an extreme example of the increasingly intense weather events impacting Florida.

The coastal areas in Florida’s Panhandle are important habitat for many native and migratory shorebirds, and some coastal habitat impacts from Michael are positive. Sand dunes arose in some places and disappeared in others, peninsulas breached and became islands, and freshly deposited sand buried dense beach vegetation. Changes like these often benefit beach-nesting and migratory waterbirds, enabling them to better see predators on unobstructed beaches. Species like Black Skimmers and American Oystercatchers appreciate this natural cycle of vegetative succession and dynamic coastlines, which has worked brilliantly in favor of beach-nesting birds for eons.

But on ever-greater expanses of Florida’s coastline, this natural cycle is clashing with the unyielding built environment. Coupled with rising sea levels, powerful storms erode and narrow shorelines in densely developed areas- forcing beach-nesting and migratory shorebirds to relocate and expend vital energy to search for suitable habitat elsewhere. In the future, these eroding shorelines will no longer support the build environment either, and human-built structures will likely relocate after confronting the combination of rising sea levels and powerful storms force.

Audubon scientists are also concerned about Hurricane Michael’s impacts to the vast mosaic of private and public forests, including the Apalachicola National Forest and Tate’s Hell State Forest. The region’s expanses of longleaf pine forests, pine flatwoods, and pitcher plant prairies can also benefit from renewal by cycles of growth and disruption, but the broad destruction of nearly 3 million acres of forest land is unprecedented.

The world’s largest breeding population of federally endangered Red-cockaded Woodpeckers also calls this region home, in and around the Apalachicola National Forest. The impacts to their habitat and cavity trees is of great concern, as well as any barriers like fuel loads from downed trees that may make the application of essential prescribed fire more challenging. Finally, the privately owned forests of this region perform essential habitat and watershed health functions, but the economic losses to these private owners have been dire. We have grave concerns that small timber holdings with near total losses will be tempted to convert to row crops or rooftops—land uses that are poor for wildlife and water but generate financial returns faster than slow-growing trees.

The road to recovery will be long for the Florida Panhandle. While Audubon is providing priority recommendations for long-term recovery to decision-makers, you can help birds and plants recover in the aftermath of a hurricane right in your own backyard. Add variety in your native plant garden, creating habitat for a variety of insects (bird food!), bird cover, and nesting sites. Get a list of native plants for your area and local native plant nurseries by visiting today. Add a water feature as simple as a bird bath with an inexpensive drip attachment, and hang a variety of bird feeders, especially this winter, in regions where Hurricane Michael stripped the tree canopy of sweetgum balls and other winter seed sources for migratory songbirds.

Audubon’s Priority Actions on Hurricane Michael Recovery

Recovery efforts must focus on near- and long-term solutions that restore critical habitats impacted by the storm and make the Gulf Coast resilient to future storms.

  • Encourage timber farmers with incentives to replant ecologically beneficial longleaf pine instead of row crops;
  • Restore critical waterbird nesting islands and beaches to support bird habitat and protect communities;
  • Restore or establish coastal barrier islands to protect communities from future storm surges and establish wildlife habitat;
  • Restore shorelines and habitats suffering from storm-related erosion, using natural infrastructure techniques such as living shorelines and native plant restoration;
  • Establish a voluntary buy-out program that reconnects floodplains to river systems, addresses future headwater threats, and saves taxpayer funds;
  • Replace infrastructure important for erosion control, management activities, and nesting;
  • Enhance stewardship capacity on islands and beaches to protect nesting habitat;
  • Assess effects from the storm on the upcoming avian breeding season; and
  • Using science, engineering, and stakeholder processes, work with communities to design a future more resilient to storms and storm surge while also enhancing wildlife habitat.

How you can help, right now