Officials on Sunday cautioned residents of Moore County, North Carolina, to prepare for days without electricity after a targeted attack on substations left 45,000 customers in the dark.
Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields said a suspect or suspects drove up to two Duke Energy power substations Saturday night — breaching a gate in one case — and opened fire, disabling them and resulting in a blackout for tens of thousands that could last through Thursday.
As of Monday at 2:45 p.m., over 35,000 customers remained without power, according to Poweroutage.us.
The substations are located in West End and Carthage, North Carolina, and are about 5 miles away from each other, according to Maj. Andy Conway with the Moore County Sheriff’s Office.
The FBI and state investigators have joined the inquiry to determine who was behind the attack, officials said, as a state of emergency with a 9 p.m. to 5 a.m curfew was declared in the county, schools were declared closed for Monday and shelter was set up for those who need electricity for medical devices or heating.
The curfew is set to expire on Friday at 5 p.m.
The low temperature overnight in the region was expected to reach about 30, according to the National Weather Service.
“I appreciate the swift response from local and state emergency responders in Moore County to protect public safety and work with Duke Energy to restore power,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said in a tweet on Sunday. “An attack like this on critical infrastructure is a serious, intentional crime and I expect state and federal authorities to thoroughly investigate and bring those responsible to justice.”
Asked at a Sunday news conference if the substation attacks constitute domestic terrorism, Fields said such a determination would be under the purview of federal law enforcement.
In a statement, the FBI’s Charlotte, N.C., field office confirmed its involvement in the investigation and called the attacks on the substations “willful damage.”
The sheriff said the motive in the case was still unknown. Asked if there was any connection to a 7 p.m. LGBTQ+ drag show in the city of Southern Pines on Saturday, Fields said, “It is possible, yes.”
“Anything is possible,” he said. “But we haven’t been able to tie anything back to the drag show.”
The headliner and host at the Sunrise Theater event, Naomi Dix, said in an interview that the show went on in candlelight Saturday after power ceased at about 8:15 p.m.
She said she was unaware the outage might have had anything to do with the event until hearing news Saturday night that mentioned unconfirmed reports the outages may have been the result of an attempt to put the drag show in the dark.
“The show got a lot of heat from right-wing conservatives who did not want us there,” Dix said.
The Fayetteville Observer reported Friday that the event, titled “Downtown Divas,” was the subject of threats, criticism and unfounded allegations about the LGBTQ+ community and certain types of crime.
“This is nothing new to our community,” Dix said.
Organizers and the venue carried on with planning but changed the age limit from all ages to 18 and older to keep children away from any possible protests, the publication said.
Earlier Saturday, hosts of a “Drag Queen Story Hour”-style event for children in Columbus, Ohio, pulled the plug because of what they described as the intimidating presence of right-wing demonstrators, some of whom carried long guns.
Such events, where people in drag tell gender-inclusive stories with characters of diverse backgrounds to young children, have been targeted for demonstrations by right-wing groups, including the Proud Boys.
The nation’s power grid has also captured the imagination of right-wing extremists, some of whom believe it could be the lynchpin for radical political change.
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, said in February that power facilities and other infrastructure have long been on the attack wish list of white supremacists who desire American “destabilization.”
Early this year, three men pleaded guilty in connection with plotting to attack power substations. The trio hoped to disrupt the electricity grid, sow civil unrest and economic uncertainty, and ultimately trigger a race war, federal prosecutors said at the time.
The defendants made a pact to take fentanyl from “suicide necklaces” if ever arrested, but when that day came only one of them took his portion of the drug, and he survived, prosecutors said.
Although Moore County Sheriff Fields did not connect the blackout and the drag show, he did say the substations were “targeted.”
The sustained impact of the outage can be attributed to an unprecedented breakdown of major components of the facilities, officials said.
Routine outages for Duke Energy, the main power utility in the region, can often be resolved in an hour or so, the company has said.
But Saturday’s night’s blackout was different.
“Certainly, it’s a complex repair,” Duke Energy spokesperson Jeff Brooks said late Saturday.
Power may potentially be out until Thursday while equipment at the substation is replaced, according to Brooks.
“Unlike perhaps a storm where you can go in and reroute power somewhere else, that was not an option in this case,” Brooks said at the Sunday news conference.
“We are looking at a pretty sophisticated repair with some fairly large equipment, and so we do want citizens of the town to be prepared that this will be a multi-day restoration for most customers extending potentially as long as Thursday,” he said Sunday.
Sewer lift stations, which help move wastewater to treatment plants, were also out of order, and authorities advised residents to stay off the roads. “There are multiple accidents that have occurred,” Southern Pines administration said in a statement on Facebook.
Authorities asked travelers not to visit Moore County, in south-central North Carolina, and they urged residents to stay off the roads, especially at night, when streetlights and traffic signals would provide little guidance.
The county-wide curfew started Sunday at 9 p.m. and will most likely remain for the next few days — until electricity is restored, officials said. The curfew lasts until 5 a.m.
Local authorities were out in force in communities affected by the outages. It wasn’t clear whether this was to dissuade looting, or as part of the investigation.
The Village of Pinehurst said additional police were on the streets overnight and urged residents to stay home.
“Officers have been called in to assist,” the village said in a statement. “Please stay off the roads if you can and treat all intersections as four way stops.”