Sharp boundaries typically separate the salinity tolerant mangroves from the salinity intolerant hardwood hammock species, which occupy the similar geographical areas of southern Florida. Evidence of strong feedback between tree community-type and the salinity of the unsaturated (vadose) zone of the soil suggests that a severe disturbance that significantly tilts the salinity in the vadose zone might cause a shift from one vegetation type to the other. In this study, a model based upon the feedback dynamics between vegetation and salinity of the vadose zone of the soil was used to take account of storm surge events to investigate the mechanisms that by which this large-scale disturbance could affect the spatial pattern of hardwood hammocks and mangroves. Model simulation results indicated that a heavy storm surge that completely saturated the vadose zone at 30 ppt for 1 day could lead to a regime shift in which there is domination by mangroves of areas previously dominated by hardwood hammocks. Lighter storm surges that saturated the vadose zone at less than 7 ppt did not cause vegetation shifts. Investigations of model sensitivity analysis indicated that the thickness of the vadose zone, coupled with precipitation, influenced the residence time of high salinity in the vadose zone and therefore determined the rate of mangrove domination. The model was developed for a southern Florida coastal ecosystem, but its applicability may be much broader. ?? 2008 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.