Fire and windstorms can cause severe disturbance, but their consequences for trees may differ. Resprouting enables persistence through frequent and severe disturbance. To explore responses to an abnormal disturbance and evolutionary hypotheses about resprouting as an adaptation, we analysed patterns of resprouting in four taxa following a tornado in a tropical savanna (Kakadu National Park, northern Australia) that is frequently burnt but is rarely subject to severe windthrow. Resprouting (i.e. survival) rates varied markedly among taxa and damage types, from 35% in uprooted Acacia spp. (Mimosaceae) to over 90% in eucalypts (Myrtaceae) and Erythrophleum chlorostachys (Caesalpiniaceae) with persistent tertiary branches. Most resprouting was from the epicormic strand-bank on the stem or branches. Across all taxa, greater architectural damage reduced resprouting rates. Damage was magnified by proximity to the centre of the tornado path, suggesting an additional effect of internal damage. Smaller trees, trees whose trunks were snapped below 2 m, and those closer to the tornado path were more likely to resprout basally or from the roots rather than epicormically, although in Acacia spp. these resprouting modes were positively correlated. We hypothesize that trees of fire-prone savannas have evolved to grow rapidly out of the flame zone; this was supported by more detailed analyses of Eucalyptus tetrodonta suggesting that resprouts emerging nearer the ground grow faster. Resprouting at ground level may be a bet-hedging strategy to spread the risk of mortality among multiple stems when elevated sprouting was not possible. We conclude that the adaptation of eucalypts to frequent fire does not jeopardize their survival (by comparison with the more generalist Acacia spp.) following severe windthrow, providing an example of ‘exaptation’ rather than trade-off in fitness under contrasting stressors.