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‘Absolutely insane’: Residents of North Carolina’s Moore County left in the dark after power outage

Dec. 5, 2022 Updated Mon., Dec. 5, 2022 at 6:20 p.m.

In this screenshot from Moore County Sheriff's Department video, Sheriff Ronnie Fields, who at a Sunday afternoon press conference called the perpetrators “cowards,” announced a Sunday curfew from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. Monday.  (Moore County Sheriff's Department/Moore County Sheriff's Department/TNS)
In this screenshot from Moore County Sheriff's Department video, Sheriff Ronnie Fields, who at a Sunday afternoon press conference called the perpetrators “cowards,” announced a Sunday curfew from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. Monday. (Moore County Sheriff's Department/Moore County Sheriff's Department/TNS)
By Kristen Johnson, Josh Shaffer and Martha Quillin The News & Observer

RALEIGH, N.C. — After vandals damaged two electricity substations in Moore County with gunfire, the FBI joined state and county officials to investigate the “intentional” act that has left tens of thousands of homes and businesses without power.

As of Monday afternoon, no arrests had been made and more than 33,000 customers in Moore County, located south of Raleigh, remained in the dark and cold.

Most of the power losses are in the Pinehurst and Southern Pines areas where over 15,000 customers are affected, along with:

—More than 5,000 customers without power in Aberdeen area.

—More than 4,000 customers without power in Whispering Pines/Lakeview area.

—More than 2,000 customers without power in the Carthage area.

Duke Energy officials say it could be Thursday before power is fully restored. Crews responding to the incident found “intentional impact on the substation,” a spokesman said, “damaging multiple pieces of equipment.”

In downtown Southern Pines, drivers inched nervously through intersections without working traffic lights Monday, and the air rang with buzzing generators.

Businesses opened their doors in the dark, comparing their situation to a hurricane without a hurricane.

Tom Markey, who manages the kitchen at Betsy’s Crepes, wore a wool hat with ear flaps while he tried to hook up a generator.

”I only get to bring it out a couple times a year,” he joked about the hat.

But residents started their work week with the knowledge that someone had deliberately targeted their power supply.

”I think it’s absolutely insane,” said Betsy Markey, the shop owner. “What was someone thinking? I don’t understand what’s going on in people’s minds.”

“It makes no sense,” said her son, Tom. “How does that happen in Moore County?”

“I guess it just means we can’t be as comfortable now,” Betsy Markey said.

The downtown streets were mostly deserted with nearly every parking space empty. But Lisa Nines opened Swank Coffee shop and offered java and scones to all comers in the dark, serving 140 cups before noon.

”There’s just frustration,” she said. “This one girl had a sick child. Frustration and why, how could this happen in a little town?”

Sunday afternoon, Moore County officials declared a state of emergency and set a curfew beginning from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. this week as long as the declaration is in effect.

The FBI’s Charlotte division is also working with state and federal law enforcement to investigate the matter.

“FBI Charlotte is investigating the willful damage to power facilities in Moore County,” said Shelley Lynch, a spokesperson for the division.

“We are in regular contact with local law enforcement and private sector partners,” Lynch said. “Due to the ongoing investigation, the FBI has no additional comment.”

Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields called the suspects who damaged the substations “cowards” at a press conference Sunday afternoon.

The power outages were reported about 7 p.m. Saturday and spread throughout central and southern Moore County.

The perpetrators knew “exactly what they were doing,” Fields said.

Officials asked anyone with information about the attack on the substations to call the sheriff’s tip line at (910) 947-4444.

Fields did not say whether he considered the vandalism an act of domestic terrorism, as some community members have called it, citing a drag show held in Southern Pines on Saturday.

Experts say it’s not possible to know if domestic terrorism occurred until the culprits — and their motivations — are known.

The FBI defines domestic terrorism as “violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial or environmental nature.”

“Terrorism is a distinct category of violence because it is committed for its propagandistic purposes,” said Cori Dauber, a professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill who studies terrorism communication. “It’s intended for its audience. It’s communicative by nature.”

Moore County covers about 706 square miles in the Sandhills region of the state and is home to more than 99,000 people.

The county’s biggest industries are health care, tourism and retail business. It’s also become known as a golfing community with the establishment of the Pinehurst Resort.

About 9% of Moore County residents live in poverty, creating some stark contrasts between the resort community of Pinehurst, the town of Southern Pines, and working-class communities.

In Carthage, the Moore County seat, much of the town operated Monday out of the Limitless coffee shop, which had a 5-kilowatt generator and had to alternate between powering the coffee pot and microwave.

A sign posted on a law office next door read: “Closed due to domestic terrorism.”

In Pinehurst, gas stations all closed and stranded drivers reported long lines as far as Sanford.

The Harris Teeter in Whispering Pines was rationing gas.

”My son got 6 gallons,” said Leslie Bailey, a retired Wake County teacher. “We’re lucky. We could spend a night at a hotel in Apex and buy a generator.”

Bailey and her husband Phil, also a retired teacher, posted a Facebook ad offering their heater and four bottles of kerosene to the needy.

Emily Thomas claimed it for her 86-year-old grandmother, who has early onset Alzheimer’s.

”She will not leave the house because of the dogs,” she said.

Thomas and Cordell Scarborough, who works at Maxie’s restaurant in Pinehurst, recently lost their 12-year-old son and couldn’t manage the expense of helping her grandmother weather the outage — a common problem in Moore County.

”It’s really insane,” said Cordell Scarborough. “I don’t know why they did it. They put a lot of people at risk, and just messed up everybody’s way of life.”

Phil Bailey noted that much of Moore County depends on restaurant and tourism dollars, threatening people like Scarborough.

“They’re saving trying to buy Christmas presents,” he said. “Now they can’t work.”

At Pinehurst Resort, hotel rooms were down to 61 able to run on a generator. But pursuits there run largely outdoors.

”Everybody’s playing golf,” said golf pro Ben Bridgers. “Don’t need much power.”

Monday afternoon, Gov. Roy Cooper held a press conference in Moore County alongside Fields and Jeff Brooks, a spokesperson for Duke Energy.

Cooper called the attack “a new level of threat,” echoing Fields’ insistence that the perpetrators knew what they were doing and acted deliberately.

“Regardless of motive,” the governor said, “violence and sabotage will not be tolerated.”

Cooper and law enforcement officials gave no details about the type of firearm used. But Fields said he has contacted a colonel at nearby Fort Bragg, adding to the FBI as federal assistance.

He said he continues to be briefed and that the emergency management team there has been “working around the clock.”

“Helping the vulnerable people in places where they live, including adult care homes, is a priority,” he said. “Making sure that people are warm as the night approaches, making sure people are cared for, making sure that critical services and hospitals and law enforcement and emergency management services are supported and available.”

Cooper added investigators are “leaving no stone unturned” as they analyze the situation and whether it was terrorism.

“We will be evaluating ways to work with our utility providers and our state and federal officials to make sure that we harden our infrastructure, our infrastructure, where that’s necessary, and work to prevent future damage,” Cooper said.

Brooks said some of the damaged substation equipment can be repaired in place and some of it must be replaced entirely.

“Resiliency is about community,” he said. “We also remain committed to continuing to make the improvements that are needed on the grid to strengthen the grid to make it increasingly resilient, increasingly able to recover quickly when these types of outages occur.”

He said Duke Energy will provide $100,000 toward community aid.

“We’ll be working with organizations like the Red Cross and other groups to help help address where we need to be,” Brooks said. “It’s just a way that that we can do something as employees and as an organization to assist even as we’re trying to get the power back.”

With businesses shut down across Moore County, people went to neighboring communities Monday in search of food, gas, batteries and in some cases, places to stay.

Driving north on U.S. 1, the first place with electricity they would come to is the crossroads of Tramway in Lee County, where gas stations and fast food restaurants starting serving Moore County refugees early Sunday.

A popular Mexican restaurant there was jammed Sunday night and telling callers it would be an hour before any takeout orders could be filled.

Casey Thomasson made the trip Monday morning to gas up his dad’s Jeep and fill a can for his own car. Thomasson, who lives in Vass, said his parents and sister, who live nearby, planned to stay in a hotel in Raleigh until the power comes back on, leaving him to care for their dogs along with his own.

Thomasson said he didn’t mind, but that he was upset for older people and families with small children.

“My house is freezing cold,” Thomasson said.

Sunday night, he built a fire to stay warm but when he woke up Monday morning, after outside temperatures fell to around 32 degrees, his dog Weezy was shivering next to him on the bed.

His house has a well but can’t pump more water with the electricity out, so Thomasson said he would be staying at his parents’ house, which has city water from Southern Pines, until power is restored.

“I don’t want to complain,” he said, “because there are so many people who have it much, much worse. But this is all so wrong. It’s wrong.”

Carla Hartsell, another Vass resident, said she was out on her family’s farmland burning brush with her sons and didn’t know about the outage until a friend texted her. The friend also said county officials were asking people to go home and stay off the roads.

She was disturbed, she said, that someone would sabotage the power grid.

“It’s scary,” she said. “Whoever did it had to know how to do it. But why would someone take out a whole county? There are so many kids and elderly people.”

Since then, Hartsell said, her family has been eating what she can cook on the grill or in the wood-burning fireplace. She ventured to Sanford Monday to buy gas, and said she is prepared if the power doesn’t return until Thursday as Duke Energy indicated.

Hartsell has a generator for lights. “You just roll with it,” she said. “It’s all you can do.”

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