Refuge habitats increase survival rate and recovery time of populations experiencing environmental disturbance, but limits on the ability of refuges to buffer communities are poorly understood. We hypothesized that importance of refuges in preventing population declines and alteration in community structure has a non-linear relationship with severity of disturbance. In the Florida Everglades, alligator ponds are used as refuge habitat by fishes during seasonal drying of marsh habitats. Using an 11-year record of hydrological conditions and fish abundance in 10 marshes and 34 alligator ponds from two regions of the Everglades, we sought to characterize patterns of refuge use and temporal dynamics of fish abundance and community structure across changing intensity, duration, and frequency of drought disturbance. Abundance in alligator ponds was positively related to refuge size, distance from alternative refugia (e.g. canals), and abundance in surrounding marsh prior to hydrologic disturbance. Variables negatively related to abundance in alligator ponds included water level in surrounding marsh and abundance of disturbance-tolerant species. Refuge community structure did not differ between regions because the same subset of species in both regions used alligator ponds during droughts. When time between disturbances was short, fish abundance declined in marshes, and in the region with the most spatially extensive pattern of disturbance, community structure was altered in both marshes and alligator ponds because of an increased proportion of species more resistant to disturbance. These changes in community structure were associated with increases in both duration and frequency of hydrologic disturbance. Use of refuge habitat had a modal relationship with severity of disturbance regime. Spatial patterns of response suggest that decline in refuge use was because of decreased effectiveness of refuge habitat in reducing mortality and providing sufficient time for recovery for fish communities experiencing reduced time between disturbance events.