From the window of her seaside cottage, perched on the edge of the wild Tasman sea, Lynn Stoddart thought the tide seemed unusually high.

It was one of those statistically improbable days on the West Coast - sunny, warm, still. But the waves crashed powerfully on to Granity beach, as if fuelled by an invisible storm.

Back to work, she thought. After 16 years she was finally doing up her home, which is tucked away between the mountains and the sea in the old coal-mining town of Hector.

Artboard Created with Sketch. Wellington GRANITY & HECTOR
She's used to the distant roar of waves, the rumble of trains hauling coal slipping quietly behind nearby Granity village, beneath the hills thick with native bush and all the noise that goes with it.

All of those sounds were replaced by a boom. She returned to the window; the sea had risen to her back door.

"I looked out and went oh my God," she says.

A powerful wave ripped over the beach and through her backyard, into a shed and a side room of her house.

Saltwater spilled out across the main highway and crashed into the paddocks opposite. The side room, which she had been sleeping in, was destroyed, as was the shed.

Her backyard, buried beneath stone, sand and driftwood, looked like it had been roughed up by a tropical cyclone.

Penny Madden in her backyard, days after a wave went through her garage. ALDEN WILLIAMS/FAIRFAX NZ

A little while later, one of Stoddart's neighbours, Penny Madden, returned to her home from Granity School, where she teaches.

The school bus driver had told her, urgently, that her section was underwater.

She parked her car in the empty lot by her house where her neighbour once lived, a rough section with overgrown grass and frayed concrete. A few months earlier he had demolished his home and left, away from the waves, back to the safety of Nelson.

Madden's section was, indeed, underwater.

One of Penny Madden's chickens by its mangled coop. ALDEN WILLIAMS/FAIRFAX NZ

One of her two chickens was roaming freely in the front yard – its coop had been pummeled with such force bits of mangled wood were part way up a tree.

Water had pushed through the back wall of Madden's garage, rearranging some old furniture on its way out the front door, then across the road.

Her garden was destroyed; driftwood floated limply in shin deep water and the distinctive stones of Granity beach, all different shapes and colours, were scattered everywhere. Her lemon tree, completely horizontal but otherwise in good spirits, was all that remained.

"There was nothing you could do," she says.

"There was a huge tide and it picked all the sand and the stones up and washed it all the way through."

Both women had just finished cleaning up after the last freak wave, a few months earlier. That wave, too, struck on a relatively calm Friday afternoon.

Further down the coast, at Carters Beach near Westport, that wave reportedly hit like a tsunami, several metres high and flooding a domain. Parts of the popular Heaphy Track near Karamea had been completely buried beneath driftwood.

For years the Tasman sea had been moving closer and closer to homes in Granity and Hector, steadily chewing away at the shoreline.

It has permanently changed some of the small, beachfront properties, where metres of land has fallen into the ocean.

"A couple of years ago the property went all the way out there," Madden says, gesturing in the distance.

"There were trees all through there that have disappeared."

Stoddart says the same. Her once generous backyard ends at her now ruined shed, but once spread much further.

"There was a whole different backyard out there," she says, wistfully.

The people living here have known about the erosion problem for a while, even if they didn't when they arrived. It's obvious enough in the jagged edges of the coastline, which follows a strange contour, as if large bites have been taken out of it.

Erosion along the bank at Carters Beach, by Westport. ALDEN WILLIAMS/FAIRFAX NZ

The last couple of years had been different.

The sea's steady, relentless advance had become wild and unpredictable, ripping great strips from the shoreline in chunks.

It has shortened the time-span for those living on the beach. What was once a problem for their future selves has come blustering into the present day.

"I thought by the time it gets to me, I'll be too old to really care. But in the last three years it's just happened so fast," says Gavin Sykes, who lives in Granity.

"People used to use our backyard to have 60th birthdays and all sorts of things. This was beautiful, this backyard. We had plants, nice grass... It was a beautiful area and the sea's just f...ed it.

"Right now, it could be all over for us in a year."


The hills above Granity looking out at the Tasman sea. ALDEN WILLIAMS/FAIRFAX NZ

Granity, Ngakawau and Hector fall within a few hundred metres of each other on the road to Karamea, collectively known as the towns of Buller bay.

They were built on the demand for coal, which runs in great black rivers beneath the mountains. Stockton, the largest opencast mine in the country, decapitates a peak high in the hills above. Decades of reliance on coal tied the towns to the industry's fortunes, and years of lay-offs in the mine above have rippled to the communities below.

Granity is a bohemian art town, these days. The odd miner remains, but it's not like the old times; boarding the shuttle in the early morning darkness, climbing the Stockton road through the fog up the steep, forested gullies, long days in the mine at the top of the world.

The Stockton mine, pictured in its pomp in 2004. STACY SQUIRES\/FAIRFAX NZ

The Stockton mine, pictured in its pomp in 2004. STACY SQUIRES/FAIRFAX NZ

Now locals go to the local church, which was transformed into the Granity art space. The local book exchange, a fridge splashed with paint, contains weathered fantasy novels and the work of radical feminist Andrea Dworkin. The Granity theatre troupe is working on a TV pilot – the first episode centres around the real-life mystery of the town's stolen bus stop. It was a saga less conspiratorial than some may have hoped: it was sold because the coal company no longer needed it, too many miners laid off.

"It's rednecks and creatives, both," says Lynn Stoddart, who is a musician, about Granity.

qualification Created with Sketch. New Zealand 21% Granity 38% Hector-Ngakawau 42% SOURCE: Statistics NZ, 2013 Censu s Percentage of people aged 15+ with no formal qualification.

People in Granity and Hector-Ngakawau are about twice as likely to have no formal qualification than NZ as a whole.

"The school occasionally flies the pirate flag, so we're a wee bit alternative. It's a creatively active place, we're not just accepting unemployment.

"We make our own s..t happen, you know."

Many of those living on the beach are elderly or unemployed, and like many Kiwis, their home doubles as a nest egg.

age Created with Sketch. Granity 47.8 years old New Zealand 38 years old Hector-Ngakawau 52.8 years old SOURCE: Statistics NZ, 2013 Censu s Median age.

Median age in Granity and Hector-Ngakawau is about 50.

Coastal erosion is happening around New Zealand, but there are few places where its effects are so brutally obvious.

At Granity, the sea has been slow but relentless, chipping away at the beach for many years. In the spirit of the town's name, locals have weathered the issue with rock-hard grit. But since the erosion accelerated, they've been reckoning with a future they didn't expect for years to come.

Gavin Sykes by the creek alongside his home, which he has fortified with rocks. ALDEN WILLIAMS/FAIRFAX NZ

"It's amazing how stressful something like this is," Gavin Sykes says.

"My wife wants to move; she says just go. But all our money's tied up in this house, as most Kiwis' are. Even if we sell the house at a way lower price, people would still be hesitant about buying it, because they can't get insurance. It doesn't make sense."

From his backyard he has a clear view of Chair Rock, a local landmark out in the water. It used to be connected to the mainland with a wire, which anglers would traverse like a zipline, dangling above the sea, so they could fish from the rock.

Since the sea had risen, few people used Chair Rock anymore.

What used to be the high tide mark is now the low tide mark, he says.

High tide approaching at Granity beach. ALDEN WILLIAMS/FAIRFAX NZ

Next to his home is a small creek, which has been violently widened by sea surges. It is the bane of his existence.

You can surf on it sometimes, he says, with all the water that comes surging up the sand. About 10 endangered longfin eels, each about 50 years old, live in the creek, pushed further and further back by the intrusion of saltwater.

The creek meant his insurance for water damage was cancelled, he says. As his property continues to erode, the waves become more powerful, getting ever closer to his home.

"In six years, we've lost about 7m of land here," he says. "This used to be farmland out here. This huge area was paddocks. That's how far the sea has encroached."

Sykes' home and the creek that has eaten away at his land over the years. GOOGLE EARTH

After the most recent wave, he hopped in his small digger and put the boulders at the front of the creek back in place, fully aware they would be swept away once again.

He expects the next wave to collapse part of the creek. If one of the surrounding pohutakawas falls in, blocking the flow, the flooding will be disastrous.

"It just seems like every time we think we've got it under control a huge wave comes from somewhere and f...s it all.

"It's tough times world-wide, isn't it. It's tough times in Granity, too."

Many people on the beach are grappling with the same problem. They need to move, but some don't have the means to do so.

One of several for sale signs along the main road in Granity. ALDEN WILLIAMS/FAIRFAX NZ

Many people on the beach are grappling with the same problem. They need to move, but most don't have the means to do so.

Despite being income-poor by national standards, the community's home ownership rates are around 70 per cent, higher than the national average. Their wealth is tied up in their properties, a long row of nest eggs on a receding coastline.

Their homes are losing value by the day, and keeping affordable insurance is getting more and more unlikely. First their premiums rise, then higher excesses are inserted into policies. Then, when the flooding keeps happening, they risk losing insurance altogether – insurance is designed to protect against risk, not certainty.

"Most people are fairly resigned to the fact that they'll eventually have to move," Penny Madden says.

"There's quite a few people worried about their future. A lot of people don't have a lot of money.

"I'd like to sell up and move but who's going to buy it, frankly. I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place."


A tennis court at Carters Beach, damaged by large waves from the eroding coastline. ALDEN WILLIAMS/FAIRFAX NZ

The Ngakawau coal sorting facility, severe and fortress-like, looms above Hector.

It's built in the brutalist style, a tower of plain concrete; it looks vaguely like a villain's lair in a cartoon.

It is virtually across the road from the houses that are most battered by the sea. Severe erosion is pushing closer and closer to the Ngakawau bridge immediately in front of it.

At Stockton mine, coal is hauled onto an aerial ropeway, where buckets of coal sail down the mountain into coal bins. Even now, after hundreds and hundreds of mining jobs were slashed, trains regularly pull bulging coal wagons towards Lyttelton port, bound for Asia.

The irony is that these towns, among the last refuges of the fading coal industry, are on a collision course with a warming climate, almost certain to be lost to continuing erosion and sea level rise.

Climate change doesn't tend to create new coastal hazards, but it does exacerbate those that already exist.

There is nothing new about coastal erosion, particularly on the West Coast. It has been happening for about a century, part of a long term cycle of advance and retreat, which has happened for thousands of years.

Climate change has thrown fuel on the fire of the existing erosion. Higher seas push the waves closer to the coast, and severe weather events become more frequent.

For a coastal nation fixated on home ownership, it represents a problem. Large parts of the country were built in the wrong place, under the assumption the land would stay put.

CLOCKWISE, FROM TOP LEFT: Whakatane, Motueka and Mapua, Christchurch, Dunedin. Purple indicates areas that are less than 50cm above mean high water springs, dark green indicates 50-100cm above high water springs. However, the elevation bands are not hazard zones and should not be interpreted as such. Local characteristics are also vitally important. For instance, a low-lying area may be protected by a headland or a sand dune. Maps for some urban areas are not available. PARLIAMENTARY COMMISSIONER FOR THE ENVRIONMENT.

In her landmark 2015 report on coastal hazards, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Jan Wright identified 9000 properties within 50cm of spring high tide levels.

She likened it to a "slowly unfolding red-zone". Thousands of properties and billions of dollars in infrastructure in the path of rising seas.

"The rise in sea level that has already occurred means that king tides, storm surges, and waves now reach higher up shores than they used to," Wright wrote in her report.

"As the sea continues to rise the frequency, duration, and extent of coastal flooding will increase."

If there's one takeaway from Wright's report, it's that the issue is too important to rush. For most of the areas likely to be hit by rising seas, there are decades to prepare before the water starts lapping at their door.

There's no such luck in Hector.

The site where a house was demolished due to erosion issues. ALDEN WILLIAMS/FAIRFAX NZ

At least one house, regularly flooded by waves, has been demolished.

At the now empty site, the shadows of the waves remain on the flattened grass, and stones from the sea are scattered almost up to the road.

By the time managed retreat is underway in major cities, after a careful process of consultation, the houses on Granity beach will be in splinters, either at the hand of their owners or by the sheer force of the sea.

While property values have surged in New Zealand since 2013, values in Buller District - home to Granity and Hector-Ngakawau - have fallen.

While property values have surged in New Zealand since 2013, values in Buller District - home to Granity and Hector-Ngakawau - have fallen.

Coastal engineers from NIWA have been advising the communities and the expert recommendation is clear: the only realistic long-term solution is to move.

"The most cost-effective way of reducing the risk to people and property is through a retreat from the coastline," says coastal engineer Dr Michael Allis.

"People don't like hearing that, but when we're talking about people's lives, of course we're going to take the conservative approach and recommend they move away. It's quite clear."

The community as a whole, however, doesn't want to do that. They've sent a clear message they want to hold the line, contrary to the expert advice.

One option to do that is through a united front of seawalls, but they're a short to medium term solution at best, Allis says.

The seawalls already on the beach get over-topped, and there's no guarantee they won't fail completely.

"They have to pay for it now and it may just be a sunk cost. If it gets washed away by a very large storm they'll either have to rebuild it or move the house – it's not like they're going to see a long-term, permanent benefit from it.

"They're a buy-some-time mechanism until they can decide whether they can relocate elsewhere."

The likelihood of the long-term erosion cycle reversing quickly is unlikely. In this part of the country, the erosion process is dominated by earthquakes; they shake sediment, sand and gravels from the hills, down rivers and onto the coast, where they are moved by waves and currents onto the beach.

It means the natural solution to the problem is a catch-22.

An earthquake on the nearby Alpine Fault, for example, may re-supply the beaches with sediment, but it would come with the destructive consequences of a powerful earthquake.

Even then, it may take years to decades for the resupply process to happen.

Again, Allis re-iterates, the safest long-term option for these communities is to relocate.

"In New Zealand, there wouldn't be too many more places which have such a risk of ongoing coastal erosion," he says.

"In the late 1800s, when the West Coast was developed for coal-mining, they didn't know, they just wouldn't have had any idea. I guess you could call it ignorance – they built where they thought it was safe.


Granity school has been battling erosion for over a decade. ALDEN WILLIAMS/FAIRFAX NZ

The first sign that erosion would be a serious problem in Granity came about a decade ago, at the primary school.

When you look at the school today, it juts out from the rest of the coastline, like the bow of a shipwreck pushing through sand. The sea has eaten around it, carving in at the sides.

The school's swimming pool was one of the early victims of erosion. During a storm, waves flung large rocks over the fence, cracking the pool's base. It was condemned and remains empty; the fence has since been lost to sea.

The school's swimming pool was destroyed by rocks from freak waves and has been unusable for years. ALDEN WILLIAMS\/FAIRFAX NZ

The school's swimming pool was destroyed by rocks from freak waves and has been unusable for years. ALDEN WILLIAMS/FAIRFAX NZ

Efforts to save the school over the last decade have been elaborate. Boulders packed together in a large seawall now defend the school from the sea, work funded by the Ministry of Education.

The wall, however, has been breached several times, requiring it to be fortified with larger and larger rocks. Granity, named for its large stores of granite, doesn't have boulders big enough, so the seawall's rocks come from elsewhere.

It is a temporary solution to a permanent problem, and erosion will almost certainly kill off the school.

"A decade is about as long as we've got, at least until there's something more permanent across the whole coast of Granity," says principal Megan Rich.

Granity school in the 1930s, shortly after it opened. WEST COAST RECOLLECT

Granity school in the 1930s, shortly after it opened. WEST COAST RECOLLECT

"It's a jewel in the crown of little country schools in New Zealand. I'm worried because it has such a history and it would be a shame for it to be taken for those reasons. Not because of the roll or anything like that, but for other reasons."

The problem with seawalls is that they require a united front. Large, individual seawalls act as a breakwater, pushing the waves into surrounding properties.

The line of defence is only as strong as its weakest link, and at the moment, there are a lot of weak links.

A seawall protecting houses at Granity beach. ALDEN WILLIAMS/FAIRFAX NZ

"Everybody has to do it, or the sea will wash in behind it and you can say goodbye to your land," says Gavin Sykes, who has fortified the creek next to his house.

"We can't all afford to have $45,000 seawalls installed."

At an emotional public meeting late last year, the West Coast regional council committed to helping locals with seawalls, funded through a targeted rate.

The problem is that seawalls are expensive, and for a small rating district like the northern Buller bay, the cost can be crippling.

One beachside homeowner, who did not want to be identified so she could speak openly, said some in the community had done nothing to protect themselves.

"Basically, no councils in the country are offering any help, because it's in the too hard basket," she says.

"No one really wants to accept the fact the council's not going to pay for it. That's the main hurdle.

"Everyone's always like doom and gloom, sit on their asses and not do a single thing to help themselves or join together as a team."

The reality is that some just can't afford to build their own seawalls, particularly those who are elderly or unemployed. Penny Madden freely admits that by not putting in a seawall at her property, it negates the impressive seawall at her neighbour's property.

"It costs a lot of money to start with," Lynn Stoddart says.

"You've got to get a consent to fortify your own land. There's that and there's DOC and there's this and there's that, just even before you start."

Looking over Hector/Ngakawau towards Granity. ALDEN WILLIAMS/FAIRFAX NZ

Even those with the practical skills to build their own fortifications struggle. Sykes, a contractor, has dipped into his retirement savings; even with his own equipment the costs are tough to bear.

"We don't know what we would've done if we didn't have our wee digger. It would drive you crazy, the hiring costs.

"We've done what we can do. I'm 63... what am I meant to do? Where am I going to live, in a car or something?"



"This will all be red-zoned," Sykes says, pointing to his long line of neighbours.

"What about this house, and this house, and the other 20 houses down there? They'll get washed away."

Authorities around the country have yet to standardise how to deal with entire communities in the path of rising seas. Typically it's been left to local authorities to deal with, meaning affected residents have to pay for mitigation work themselves, often through targeted rates.

The problem is that coastal hazards in New Zealand are discriminatory. Many of those most likely to be affected - Dunedin's southern suburbs, Christchurch's New Brighton, the rural communities of the West Coast - are not wealthy and face considerable infrastructure damage they can't pay for.

income Created with Sketch. New Zealand $63,800 Granity $32,500 Hector-Ngakawau $38,800 SOURCE: Statistics NZ, 2013 Census Median household income.

Household incomes in Granity and Hector-Hgakawau are well below the national figure.

Under recent changes to the Resource Management Act, councils will be required to consider the impact of climate change more deeply. Issues such as coastal erosion are now considered "matters of national importance" in terms of planning, and developments may not go ahead if climate issues are likely to be a factor.

It doesn't help the people already in the path of rising seas. It's clear that issue is still being thought through at multiple levels.

"Affordability is a huge issue," says Garry Howard, Buller district mayor, of the erosion issue. "That's the hard part. We haven't got the density and the population base."

The regional council is responsible for flood protection and has taken the lead on building sea walls, funded through a targeted rate. It's a short-term option, NIWA says - the only long term option is to move. Who pays for that is still unknown.

One of many sea walls along Granity beach. ALDEN WILLIAMS/FAIRFAX NZ

In a recent discussion document about future proofing communities, Local Government NZ mulled the need for a response to climate issues, including the thorny problem of "domestic climate refugees," some of whom will be poor.

"Since coastal communities will be some of the worst affected by climate change, climate change might exacerbate extreme poverty for those poorer coastal communities which do not have the financial resources required to relocate," it said.

"Should exposed coastal communities face the cost of damage to property and infrastructure and potential resettlement? What if someone moved there when it was clear the area would no longer be liveable?

"These decisions need to be made in a consistent way – and with adaptation required right now, the future implications of 'precedent setting' actions must be understood and taken into account."

Those who live in Granity and Hector are cynical that anything meaningful will be done due to their size. They're worried they'll slip between the cracks.

"Everybody yells out, we have no money to do this. And we're all a bit sick of that. They have money when there's a war, they have money when there's a disaster, so why can't they put their hands in the funds, because we're going to have a disaster here," Sykes says.

Further up the road, in Hector, they expect they'll be going it alone.

"I don't expect any help from the government, to be honest. That's the message we've been given not to expect anything. It's up to us," Penny Madden says.

"Nothing's happened. We've had years of meetings and [at the last one] some brave soul stood up and said we've had all these meetings before, what are you actually going to do about it?

"It should have been done ages ago."

The regional council's plan, tentatively, is for a series of seawalls to go in, funded through a targeted rate. The locals are happy to pay for it, but feel it's too late. The next storm, the next freak wave summoned from the Tasman on a warm, sunny day, could be the last.

"It's not nature's fault. I don't go out and go, bloody Moana... I accept that we've interfered with nature," Lynn Stoddart says.

"People forget about little Hector. We're worried people and we need help."

WORDS Charlie Mitchell
VISUALS Alden Williams
DATA Andy Fyers
EDITOR John Hartevelt

A large piece of driftwood at Carters Beach. ALDEN WILLIAMS/FAIRFAX NZ