Without releasing a suspect or motive, the FBI is joining an investigation into a power outage in a North Carolina county believed to be caused by a “deliberate” and “targeted” attack on an electrical substation that killed about 40,000 people. Customers were left in darkness on Saturday night, prompting a curfew and an emergency declaration.
The massive power outage in Moore County turned into a criminal investigation when responding utility crews spotted signs of possible damage to equipment at various locations — including two substations damaged by gunfire, according to the Moore County Sheriff’s Office.
“The person or persons who did this knew exactly what they were doing,” Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields said at a news conference Sunday. “We don’t know why Moore County .”
Multiple rounds were fired at the two substations, Fields said. “This is targeted, not random,” he said.
The sheriff would not say whether the criminal activity was domestic terrorism, but noted that “no group recognizes or accepts that they are those [did] it. ”
Authorities announced a mandatory curfew from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. starting Sunday night, a decision Fields said was made to protect residents and businesses.
In addition to the FBI, the North Carolina Bureau of Investigation joined the investigation, officials said.
Duke Energy’s outage map showed more than 33,000 customers remained in the dark across the county Sunday night. For some, the power outage could extend into Thursday, affecting the lives of tens of thousands, officials said.
All schools in the county will be closed Monday, and authorities have opened a shelter that runs on generators.
Traffic lights were also off Sunday, and while some stores equipped with generators were able to open, several Moore County businesses and churches were closed Sunday, CNN affiliate WRAL reported.
“We just got over Covid. And now,” the sheriff said, adding, “it’s going to hurt all of our restaurants and businesses.”
In people’s homes, it can be difficult to keep the cold out.
“We have a six-month-old baby at home. We’re out of heat. We’re trying to keep her warm,” Carthage resident Chris Thompson told WRAL.
Cold temperatures are expected in the region Sunday night, with lows in the 30s and highs in the 50s, with rain possible on Monday, according to the National Weather Service. Moore County is located in central North Carolina, about 50 miles northwest of Fayetteville.
The estimated cost of the damage to the substation was in the millions of dollars, the sheriff said Sunday.
Jeff Brooks, Duke Energy’s principal communications manager, said the damage was so severe that rerouting power was not an option.
“Equipment will have to be replaced,” Brooks said. “We’re looking at multiple recovery avenues so we can restore as many customers as possible as quickly as possible. Recognizing this, we’re looking at some pretty complex repairs with some pretty large equipment.”
In addition to the gunshot damage to the substation, a gate at one of the locations appeared to have come off its hinges, the assistant said. Southern Pines Fire and Rescue Superintendent Mike Cameron told CNN.
While it was unclear what motivated the alleged vandalism, the sheriff on Sunday responded to rumors circulating on social media that the attack was an attempt to stop a local drag show.
Fields said investigators “couldn’t connect anything to the drag show,” which was scheduled to take place in the town of South Pines at 7 p.m. Saturday when the power went out.
Authorities said the county declared a state of emergency to protect residents and property and maintain public services. A countywide curfew is expected to be in effect nightly while the emergency declaration is in effect.
“It’s going to be very, very dark tonight, it’s going to be cold tonight, we don’t need anyone out on the streets, that’s why we’re putting in a curfew,” Senator Tom McGinnis of North Carolina said at a news conference. “Please stay home tonight…the road is dangerous.”
The emergency order also encourages residents to conserve fuel.
Cameron told CNN that emergency calls increased in the area as the streets were dark and vehicle accidents were reported due to traffic lights going out.
Emergency calls were also made by people dependent on oxygen, he added.
A shelter was opened at the Moore County Sports Center and trailers with bathrooms and showers were brought in, Moore County Manager Wayne Vest said.
As for schools, it’s unclear how long campuses will remain closed. Moore County Superintendent Tim Locklair said decisions about school reopening for the remainder of the week will be made on a day-to-day basis.