The success of a simple and cheap flooding solution in Charleston has raised the question — which mayoral candidate came up with the idea to install them?
Dozens of new check valves, which prevent the highest tides from coursing back through the city's drainage pipes and flooding city streets, have been installed in the past few years. They have largely eliminated the issue of sunny-day flooding in the Harleston Village neighborhood, the West Side, the East Side and South Windermere.
Both incumbent Mayor John Tecklenburg and challenger Mike Seekings have emphasized their role in putting these valves in place. They've shared their messages not only in debates and stump speeches but also in their television commercials.
For a city grappling with worsening flooding and sea level rise, the check valves have proven to be an unusually bright spot. So it's understandable that at least two mayoral candidates would want to emphasize their role in putting them in place.
On Thursday, the National Weather Service noted this year is the busiest year for coastal flooding on record at both Charleston and at Fort Pulaski in Savannah. September alone had 16 coastal flood events in Charleston — the most for any September on record and second most for any month on record, the service said. The record for any month is 21 from October 2015. This year's total for the year is 58, one more than the 57 events in 2015.
The larger issue of flooding is important enough to be the sole topic of mayoral forums this fall, and the question of who deserves the most credit for the relatively cheap and simple solution have been brought up at mayoral debates.
Thursday night's debate clarified where each of the six mayoral candidates stand when it came to flooding: City Councilman Gary White thinks maintenance of existing systems should take the priority; former City Councilman Maurice Washington thinks zoning needs to be addressed; Climate-crisis candidate Renee Orth thinks it takes an "all-in" approach; and West Ashley resident Sheri Irwin doesn't think public money should be spent on public-private partnerships and instead should go toward flood mitigation efforts.
But as the debate wound down, the question of check values arose when Seekings was asked if Tecklenburg took "undue credit" for flooding solutions.
It's complicated, so for voters wondering where the credit really lies, here's a sort of check valve fact check:
In his 2015 mayoral campaign literature, he has a bullet point of plans to address various issues, including drainage and flooding relief. "Install drainage outlet 'check values' or 'backflow preventers' that will prevent tidal waters from backing up into the storm drainage system," it said.
In an interview, Tecklenburg said he worked as an assistant pipe-fitter as a teenager and "always put check valves before the edge of pumps to keep unwanted materials from getting in line of the back flow."
Tecklenburg said he isn't claiming he invented check valves, but it was his plumbing experience in his younger years that led him to include check valves in his campaign literature. He also said he doesn't care much about getting credit but wants to get the job done.
"After I became mayor, I talked to department heads and asked that we review all possible locations and have a program in place where if they were needed, and engineers felt it appropriate, to install them," he said.
"I admit that a few of the check valves are in Mike's district and he's been supportive of that," Tecklenburg added. "I'm glad that he's been supportive, as the rest of council. This just shows that there are cases that this council has worked together and gotten results."
After the debate Thursday night, Tecklenburg's campaign manager Devin Gosnell said Tecklenburg did not take undue credit for the installation of check valves.
"The mayor has put forth the most comprehensive plan to fix flooding in the city of Charleston to date," Gosnell said. "It was his vision and his plan that made it happen."
Armed with an Oct. 12, 2016 PowerPoint presentation, Seekings has photos of flooded Colonial Lake, an oyster-crusted check valve on Murray Boulevard and Rutledge Avenue, sediment-filled pipes on Water Street and West Side flooding, all in and around his council district.
Seekings said he started a Facebook page "Stop Harleston Village Flooding Now!" after he was elected to City Council. Its first post was made in May 2010.
He said the Murray Boulevard and Rutledge Avenue check valve started the city's purchase and implementation of a check valve plan. He said the PowerPoint was created a few months after the new check valve was installed, so the Murray Boulevard one was probably installed in mid-2016.
"Nobody in the city — not the mayor, not anybody — really knew this thing was there," Seekings said. "We didn't find it, then go to City Council. We just went and did this work and then went and got it approved afterwards."
"There was no directive from City Hall, there was no participation from City Hall," he added. "I'm sure at some point they figured out it was a really great idea; they never tried to stop us but to say it was a directive and it was their idea and he campaigned on it is not a fact."
Seekings said a city staffer was on-site at the time and they talked about that during 2016. He communicated with the staffer to try to chart where and how water was coming through the system and flooding streets.
"You go find me a picture or evidence that John Tecklenburg or anybody from his team was anywhere near any of these events and I'll be happy to have a debate with him about it," Seekings said. "But until then, this is our job; this is our project that we've done."
When he was asked Thursday night if Tecklenburg took undue credit for flooding fixes in his district, the audience laughed and Seekings said, "You know who did the work."
While check valves had been written about before this campaign season, they crept into government coverage in a January 2017 Post and Courier story. The report covered Tecklenburg's different community availability events, like 'Mayor's Night In' and 'Coffee with the Mayor.'
It included an anecdote from Tecklenburg of a submarine engineer approaching him with a rendering of a motorized pump with check valves and thought it would be a good approach to flooding.
In a Feb. 2018 Post and Courier story, the report mentions five check valves being installed downtown in January of that year on Ashley Avenue. Neither Seekings nor Tecklenburg were mentioned in the article.
In June 2018, another story noted more check valves had been installed around Cannon Park, Colonial Lake and West Ashley's South Windermere neighborhood. That story noted major flooding in 2015 prompted a city staffer and Seekings to tour the city, examine where water was deepest and take a fresh look at the city's storm drain infrastructure.
The article also says the check valve replacement work found solid support at City Hall, noting Tecklenburg ran on a vow to examine what minor tweaks can be done to improve the city's storm drains.