Multiple power substations in a North Carolina county were damaged by gunfire in an apparent act of criminal vandalism, leaving tens of thousands of people without electricity, authorities said.
The power outage across Moore County that began just after 7 p.m. Saturday is being investigated as a criminal act, Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields said in a Facebook post. More than 40,000 electric customers in the county remained without power on Sunday afternoon, according to poweroutage.us.
“As utility companies began responding to the different substations, evidence was discovered that indicated that intentional vandalism had occurred at multiple sites,” the sheriff said.
Southern Pines Fire Chief Mike Cameron said that two substations in the county were damaged by gunfire on Saturday and that a possible motive wasn’t clear. Cameron, also the assistant town manager, said that the information about the cause was given to him by Duke Energy. A Duke Energy spokesman didn’t immediately respond to an email asking about the gunfire.
Moore County deputies and other law enforcement responded and were providing security at the affected sites, the sheriff’s office said. There will be a press conference at 4 p.m. Sunday in Carthage, the Sheriff’s Office said in a news release.
Duke Energy spokesman Jeff Brooks said in an earlier statement that the company experienced “multiple equipment failures” at substations and the power company was “investigating signs of potential vandalism related to the outages.”
Duke Energy said power was expected to be restored by Sunday evening.
The Pilot newspaper in Southern Pines reported that one of its journalists saw a gate to one of the substations had been damaged and was lying in an access road.
“A pole holding up the gate had clearly been snapped off where it meets the ground. The substation’s infrastructure was heavily damaged,” the newspaper reported.
The newspaper reported that Moore County Regional Hospital was operating on generator power.
Southern Pines Fire and Rescue reported the town’s water and sewer services are also operating on backup generators. Authorities in the area asked people to stay off the roads if possible or proceed with caution because traffic lights were out of service.
Cameron, the fire chief, said that there have been several accidents at intersections where the traffic lights are out. He said the most significant involved four cars on Saturday night just after the power went out and sent four people to the hospital with minor injuries.
He said that authorities are putting temporary stop signs at some intersections.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said in a message posted to Twitter that the state was providing resources to investigators and power crews.
“I have spoken with Duke Energy and state law enforcement officials about the power outages in Moore County. They are investigating and working to return electricity to those impacted,” he said.
Rep. Richard Hudson released a statement early Sunday afternoon.
“Last night, unknown individuals vandalized at least two substations in Moore County with criminal intent. Motive for this crime remains unknown. Many Moore County residents remain without power. I want to thank Sheriff Ronnie Fields and all local law enforcement as well as the SBI and FBI for their quick action to respond to the incident. I have also been in contact with Duke Energy and know they are working on all options to restore power as quickly as possible.”
Residents affected by power outages
Andrew Wilkins of Washington, D.C., was driving to visit his parents in the Moore County village of Whispering Pines when the power went out Saturday night. He said it was an eerie sight to see streetlights, homes and businesses go dark, save for a few solar-powered Christmas wreaths.
Wilkins was helping his parents set up a generator when he spoke to The Fayetteville Observer on Sunday morning. He said his family is better prepared than most, with a generator and a supply of potable water.
“You can hear generators running in every direction,” he said.
Wilkins said neighbors and businesses are leaning on one another — a nearby pharmacy that lost power was transporting medicine that requires cold storage to a neighbor’s generator-powered refrigerators.
Without Wi-Fi and cell service, he said the community is experiencing a “huge information blackout” where some households aren’t aware of the circumstances surrounding the outages — most are focused on the immediate need for power.
“The concern is that it won’t be back on tonight,” he said.
Wilkins said he is concerned that ill-intentioned groups in other areas may realize how a “well-coordinated attack” can take out power for thousands. He said he hopes that the event will serve as a call to action for the county’s power infrastructure to be better protected.
Drag show protest
As word of the outages spread, so did rumors connecting them to protests against a drag show Saturday night in Southern Pines.
Organizers of the drag show at the Sunrise Theater in Southern Pines said last week that far-right activists had tried to shut down the event for weeks.
The Moore County Sheriff’s Office has not said whether the power outage and the protest against the drag show are related.
In response to threats of violence, organizers ramped up security for the Saturday evening event, with private security and the Southern Pines Police Department monitoring the event, Sunrise Theater Executive Director Kevin Dietzel said last week.
Southern Pines Christian school leaders had claimed that the drag performances target children. In a letter dated Nov. 21, Calvary Christian School administrators urged parents to contact the town council, the theater and show sponsors to ask for the event to be canceled.
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“The LGBTQ forces are coming to Southern Pines and they are after our children,” the letter read in part. “This is their target audience to peddle their abomination.”
The school’s letter also invited parents to join a protest at the train station across Broad Street from the theater on Saturday.
Emily Grace Rainey, who had posted an invitation to the protest on her Facebook page Saturday morning, posted Saturday night, “The power is out in Moore County, and I know why.”
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Two hours later, Rainey posted on her Facebook page that deputies with the Moore County Sheriff’s Office had visited her home.
“Sorry they wasted their time. I told them that God works in mysterious ways and is responsible for the outage. I used the opportunity to tell them about the immoral drag show and the blasphemies screamed by its supporters,” she wrote in the post.
Moore Voices political blog writer Cheryl Christy-Bowman said she is not sure whether drag show protesters caused the power outages, but she can be sure who did not.
“I know that people are posting that God did it, but I don’t think that God is taking out substations,” she told a Fayetteville Observer reporter Sunday.
Residents are staying home because they fear for their safety, and do not think law enforcement is taking the criminal acts seriously enough, she said, and are upset that county officials are referring to the incident as vandalism — a more apt description would be terrorism, especially since the effects are potentially life-threatening.
“Many have medical equipment and rely on electricity to keep them alive,” Christy-Bowman said.
Drag show shone brightly despite power outages
Naomi Dix, a Durham-based drag artist, hosted the drag show. She said that despite the power outages, the stage still shined. When the lights went out, Dix asked the sold-out crowd to illuminate the room with their cellphone flashlights as she led them in singing “Halo” by Beyonce.
“It was a beautiful moment,” Dix said.
As Dix continued to perform for about 45 minutes after the outage, Sunrise Theater Executive director Kevin Dietzel said he worked with security to monitor entrances and plan for audience members to safely exit the building. He said the full house still had a good time.
“It did not seem to dampen the spirits of anyone there,” Dietzel said.
Dix told the crowd that if the power outage is a result of their opposition’s actions, to remember that the situation is more than just social media comments resisting their presence in the town, she said.
“This has never been about drag queens and children, this is about their direct hate of anyone who does not share their beliefs,” she said. “This is terrorism and nothing less.”
The audience did not want the show to end, but Dix assured them that she and her cast would be back to perform again soon. She said the backlash will not deter her from continuing to bring and facilitate queer events to Moore County. If anything, she said, it only motivates her to continue her work.
Dietzel said Sunrise Theater is not backing down, either.
“We’ve been a place to serve the community since our inception,” he said. “That goal isn’t going to change just because of this.”
Before the show, Dix said roughly 80 counter-protesters gathered in front of the Sunrise Theater were a “beautiful sight to see.” They wore pink and held signs in support of the drag show. Dietzel said both the protest and counter-protest were peaceful, and that Southern Pines police kept the situation under control.
Dix said she did not address protesters at the event, but said if their intent is to make the queer community uncomfortable in Moore County, she wishes them luck.
“I love to be uncomfortable,” she said. “We’ll be back soon.”
Reporter Taylor Shook can be reached at email@example.com.