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FBI joins investigation into North Carolina power outage caused by ‘intentional’ attacks on substations

(CNN) — With no suspects or motive announced, the FBI is joining the investigation into power outages in a North Carolina county believed to have been caused by “intentional” and “targeted” attacks on substations that left around 40,000 customers in the dark Saturday night, prompting a curfew and emergency declaration.

The mass outage in Moore County turned into a criminal investigation when responding utility crews found signs of potential vandalism of equipment at different sites — including two substations that had been 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 during a Sunday news conference. “We don’t have a clue why Moore County.”

Fields said multiple rounds were fired at the two substations. “It was targeted, it wasn’t random,” he said.

The sheriff would not say whether the criminal activity was domestic terrorism but noted “no group has stepped up to acknowledge or accept they’re the ones who (did) it.”

Authorities announced a mandatory curfew from 9 p.m. until 5 a.m., starting Sunday night, with Fields saying the decision was made to protect residents and businesses.

In addition to the FBI, the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation has joined the investigation, officials said.

About 36,000 customers were still in the dark in the state Monday morning, according to data.

Duke Energy has restored power to around 7,000 customers since the outage, but they believe the majority of customers will not see energy restored until Thursday, a company spokesperson told CNN on Monday.

Davis Clark, vice president of McNeill Oil and Propane in Raeford, North Carolina, said he hopes the local authorities and FBI find those responsible for the “senseless” attack.

McNeill Oil and Propane is the only provider of fuel for emergency services vehicles for about 20 miles, Clark told CNN.

The local and family-owned wholesale fuel distributor provides propane, heating fuels, and gasoline services throughout the region.

“Hopefully, we can help our community,” said Clark.

All schools in the county are closed Monday and authorities have opened a shelter running on a generator.

Traffic lights are also out, and while a few stores with generators were able to open their doors, several businesses and churches in Moore County were closed Sunday, CNN affiliate WRAL reported.

“We were just getting over Covid. And now this,” the sheriff said, adding, “It’s gonna hurt all of our restaurants and businesses.”

Inside people’s homes, it’s become difficult to keep the cold out.

“We have a six-month-old baby in the house. We’re out of heat. We are trying to get heat for her,” Carthage resident Chris Thompson told WRAL.

Chilly temperatures, with lows in the 30s, were expected in the area overnight Sunday with highs in the 50s and a chance of rain expected Monday, according to the National Weather Service. Moore County is in central North Carolina, about 50 miles northwest of Fayetteville.

Millions of dollars worth of damage

The estimated cost of the substation damage is in the millions, the sheriff said Sunday.

The damage has been significant and rerouting power isn’t an option, said Jeff Brooks, principal communications manager for Duke Energy.

“Equipment will have to be replaced,” Brooks said. “We’re pursuing multiple paths of restoration so that we can restore as many customers as quickly as possible. Recognizing that, we are looking at pretty sophisticated repair with some fairly large equipment.”

In addition to the gunfire damage at the substations, a gate at one of the locations appears to have been taken off its hinges, Asst. Chief Mike Cameron of the Southern Pines Fire and Rescue Department told CNN.

While it’s unclear what motivated the alleged vandalism, the sheriff on Sunday addressed rumors circulating on social media that the attack was an attempt to thwart a local drag show.

Fields said investigators “have not been able to tie anything back to the drag show,” which was scheduled in the town of Southern Pines at 7 p.m. Saturday, around the time the power went out.

Shelters open, schools close

The county declared a state of emergency to protect residents and property and maintain public services, authorities said. The countywide curfew is expected to stay in effect nightly while the emergency declaration is in effect.

“It is going to be very, very dark and it’s going to be chilly tonight, and we don’t need to have anyone out on the streets and that is the reason for our curfew,” North Carolina state Senator Tom McInnis said during the news conference. “Please stay home tonight … the roads are dangerous.”

The emergency order also encourages residents to conserve fuel.

With streets in the dark, the area has seen increased emergency calls and vehicle accidents are being reported because traffic lights are out, Cameron told CNN.

People who rely on oxygen have also placed emergency calls, he added.

A shelter was opened at the Moore County Sports Complex, and trailers with bathroom and shower facilities are being brought in, Moore County Manager Wayne Vest said.

As for schools, it’s unclear how long campuses will stay closed. Moore County Superintendent Tim Locklair said decisions regarding school openings for the remainder of the week will be made on a day-by-day basis.