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FBI investigates deliberate attacks on N.C. power substations

Duke Energy personnel work to restore power at a crippled electrical substation in Carthage, N.C., on Sunday after the Moore County sheriff said that vandalism caused a mass power outage. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)

The FBI is working with state and local law enforcement officials to investigate Saturday’s deliberate attacks on two electrical substations in North Carolina that led to power outages impacting tens of thousands of people.

The facilities were damaged by gunfire in an intentional act of destruction whose motive remains unclear, authorities said. No arrests have been made in connection with the incident.

The FBI is investigating the “willful damage” to power facilities in Moore County, said Shelley Lynch, a spokesperson for the FBI field office in Charlotte. She declined to provide further details.

About 32,000 customers of Duke Energy in southeastern North Carolina remained without power or heat late Monday. The county declared a state of emergency and implemented a curfew, and schools were closed Monday.

Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields said Sunday that law enforcement personnel were working to gather evidence and identify the perpetrators. Fields declined to say how many gunshots hit each substation or whether security cameras captured footage of the attacks, citing a need to protect the investigation.

Investigators are exploring whether the incident was connected to a drag queen show held in the town of Southern Pines on Saturday evening, Fields said, stressing that so far nothing has indicated a link to the performance.

The power outages began shortly after 7 p.m. on Saturday, authorities said, plunging area residents into darkness and leaving some with limited access to water.

The two crippled substations are in the towns of Carthage and West End, said Maj. Andy Conway of the Moore County Sheriff’s Office. The towns are separated by a 20-minute drive. Each is about 13 miles away from Southern Pines.

Jeff Brooks, a spokesman for Duke Energy, said multiple pieces of equipment were damaged at each location, some of them “beyond repair.” At one location, a gate was also damaged, he said. Brooks estimated that it will take until Thursday to restore power to all the company’s customers in the area.

Authorities have provided no information about a motive for the incident. The attack “wasn’t random,” said Fields on Sunday. When a reporter asked why the perpetrator had targeted Moore County, Fields said, “I don’t have a clue.” In brief remarks to reporters on Monday, Fields did not offer any updates on the investigation, saying only that the culprit — or culprits — “knew exactly what they were doing.”

The vandalism to the substations occurred the same evening as the drag performance in Southern Pines, which had sparked a backlash from far-right activists.

The performance, called “Downtown Divas,” was organized by a local LGBTQ nonprofit organization. The show was originally open to all ages, but organizers subsequently restricted it to those over 18, said Kevin Dietzel, executive director of the Sunrise Theater. Dietzel said he assumed that much of the criticism was “from people who didn’t understand the nature of the event.”

Organizers said they had received violent threats in the lead-up to the show, the Fayetteville Observer reported Friday. The event’s supporters and opponents both protested outside the venue on Saturday and dispersed without incident, Dietzel said.

At Sunrise Theater on Saturday night, the power went out around 8:40 p.m., Dietzel said. Drag queen Naomi Dix said she was about to introduce an act when the room went dark (Dix spoke to The Washington Post on the condition that she be identified only by her stage name out of fear for her safety).

Dix, 31, said she tried to keep the audience of about 300 people calm and upbeat. She asked them to turn on the flashlights on their cellphones, then led the crowd in singing “Halo” by Beyoncé. About half an hour later, the organizers sent everyone home as the extent of the blackout became clear.

At a press conference on Monday, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) said that “regardless of motive, violence and sabotage will not be tolerated.” Cooper pledged that local, state and federal law enforcement officials would leave "no stone unturned” in the investigation.

Cooper said that he had spoken recently with the chief executive of Duke Energy. “We certainly need to learn from this incident,” he said. “We cannot tolerate this type of wide power outage to so many people.” There may be “things that need to change to make sure our infrastructure is protected,” he added.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm called the outage a “serious incident” and said her department is working with federal partners as the investigation continues.

In Moore County, residents were preparing for several more days without heat or electricity. The community is accustomed to periodic power outages, whether from hurricanes or snowstorms. But this is “definitely different than anything we’ve ever faced before,” said Mike Cameron, the assistant town manager and fire chief in Southern Pines.

Cameron said the absence of functioning traffic lights had contributed to a car accident on Saturday night that sent four people to the hospital with minor injuries. On Monday morning, there was a house fire that appeared to be caused by an unattended candle, he said.

“If the power had been on, I don’t think any of those things would have happened,” he said.

Hannah Alam, Marisa Iati, Maham Javaid, Leo Sands and Brittany Shammas contributed to this report.

correction

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper as a Republican. He is a Democrat.

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