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'Intentional, willful and malicious': 40K without power after substation attacks in Moore County

The Fayetteville Observer logo The Fayetteville Observer 12/6/2022 The Associated Press and Fayetteville Observer staff reports

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Click here to read our updated live coverage from Monday.

Moore County residents are under a curfew Sunday night and for the foreseeable future as Duke Energy responds to a targeted attack on two substations that knocked out power to thousands of customers and could take days to repair, officials said at a press conference Sunday afternoon. The county has also declared a state of emergency.

Sheriff Ronnie Fields said gunshots were fired at the substations taking out the power first in Carthage about 7 p.m. then shortly thereafter when a second substation was attacked, spreading to the greater majority of the county. More than 40,000 customers were without power.

A Duke Energy representative said the repair includes the replacement of substantial equipment.

"Unlike perhaps a storm where you can go in and reroute power somewhere else, that was not an option in this case, so repair has to be complete; in many cases, some of that equipment will have to be replaced," said spokesman Jeff Brooks. "Recognizing that we are looking at a pretty sophisticated repair with some pretty 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."

Tim Locklear, superintendent of Moore County Schools, said that schools would be closed on Monday and indicated that could be extended.

"As we move forward, we'll be taking it day-by-day in making those (closure) decisions," he said.

Sheriff Fields urged anyone with information to call 910-947-4444.

When asked if the attack on the power grid was in response to a highly contested drag show in Southern Pines on Saturday night, Fields said they had yet to find any connection to the show.

"Is it possible? Anything's possible. But we've not been able to tie anything back to the drag show," he said.

He said the damage will cost in the millions, and a motive for the attack has not been determined, calling the perpetrator a coward.

"No group has stepped up to acknowledge or accept that they're the ones that done it," he said. "I call them cowards is what I call them."

He said that law enforcement will be out in force providing security to other substations as well as businesses in the county.

"I can promise you, to the perpetrators out there, we will find you," Sheriff Fields said, noting that in addition to his office, the FBI, State Bureau of Investigation, and law enforcement in the county's 11 municipalities were working "as a team" to investigate. He also said his office has been in contact with Gov. Roy Cooper.

"Folks this was a terrible act and it appears to be an intentional, willful and malicious attack and the perpetrator will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," Sen. Tom McInnis said during the press conference.

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.

He said that authorities are putting temporary stop signs at some intersections.

Gov. 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.

Businesses and residents lend a hand

Several area businesses and residents pitched in Sunday to alleviate the impacts of the power outages. CBS17 reported Harris Teeters in Pinehurst, Carthage and Aberdeen were distributing free bags of ice. 

Sunday evening, a group of Robbins residents passed out hot dogs, chips and water at the corner of Monroe and Bruce streets in Carthage, near a farm equipment store. 

Kasey Galloway said the idea came to her as she ate lunch at home after church. She did not lose power but said she felt sorry for those who did.  

“God calls us to be the hands and feet, so that’s what we do,” she said.  

Her husband John manned the grill on the back of their pickup truck. He said the group had handed out 50 hot dogs in just 45 minutes and were planning to make another trip to the store for more. 

“We’ll be here until John Deere kicks us off their property,” he said.  

Galloway said she knew she could count on her friends Brooke and Keith Wilson to help pass out food. The Wilsons were both holding signs and waving at passersby. 

“It’s just something we can do to show kindness,” Brooke Wilson said.  

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. 

More:The drag show must go on: Organizers say death threats won't stop Southern Pines event

“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 Rainey, an outspoken opponent of the drag show and a former Army captain who resigned her commission amid an investigation into her attendance at the Jan. 6 Trump rally, tweeted out a cryptic message following the outages.

"The power is out in Moore County, and I know why," Rainey said in a post to her page shortly before 9 p.m. Saturday.

More:Army command investigates Fort Bragg soldier who attended D.C. rally

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.

Fields, at the press conference, acknowledged the visit, saying, "There is an individual that put some information on Facebook that was false. Yes, we had to go and interview this young lady and have a word of prayer with her, but it turned out to be nothing."

Drag artist Naomi Dix pose with a sign that reads "Ms. Grace is a disgrace" at Downtown Divas drag show at Sunrise Theater in Southern Pines, Dec. 3, 2022. © Naomi Dix Drag artist Naomi Dix pose with a sign that reads "Ms. Grace is a disgrace" at Downtown Divas drag show at Sunrise Theater in Southern Pines, Dec. 3, 2022.

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 said Sunday.  

She said residents were staying home because they fear for their safety, and do not think law enforcement is taking the criminal acts seriously enough. That county officials are referring to the incident as vandalism and not terrorism is upsetting she noted. 

“Many have medical equipment and rely on electricity to keep them alive," Christy-Bowman said.

Drag show shone brightly despite power outages

Drag artist Naomi Dix poses with a young fan ahead of Downtown Divas drag show at Sunrise Theater in Southern Pines, Dec. 3, 2022. © Naomi Dix Drag artist Naomi Dix poses with a young fan ahead of Downtown Divas drag show at Sunrise Theater in Southern Pines, Dec. 3, 2022.

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. 

Michael Yates is a Cary resident who attended the counter-protest and the show with his husband and a group of friends. He said that the mood remained high as Naomi also led the audience in singing "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey. At the end of the show, attendees cheered and tipped Dix and her fellow performers.

"Our community does have a lot of bad things happen to us, and as drag artists they carry that pain," he 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.” 

Supporters pose with signs and pride flags at Downtown Divas drag show at Sunrise Theater in Southern Pines, Dec. 3, 2022. © Naomi Dix Supporters pose with signs and pride flags at Downtown Divas drag show at Sunrise Theater in Southern Pines, Dec. 3, 2022.

LGBTQ allies far outnumbered far-right protesters, organizers say

An organizer of the counter-protest ahead of the show, who preferred to remain anonymous to protect his safety, said there were an estimated 200 LGBTQ community members and their allies behind him as he led the march down Broad Street to the Sunrise Theater. Rainey and her fellow protesters were a group of about 40, he said.

Dietzel said both the protest and counter-protest were peaceful, and that Southern Pines police kept the situation under control.

Dix said counter-protesters were a “beautiful sight to see.” They wore pink and held signs in a show of support, she said. Yates said allies chanted rally cries like "love beats hate" as their opposition across the street shouted bible verses.

"Our side of the street was a lot more fun," Yates said.

He said the community is used to opposition, but that when it faces adversity, it only spawns more love and support for one another.

"What is meant to tear us apart only brings us together closer," Yates said.

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 tshook@gannett.com.

Military and crime editor F.T. Norton can be reached at fnorton@fayobserver.com.

This article originally appeared on The Fayetteville Observer: 'Intentional, willful and malicious': 40K without power after substation attacks in Moore County

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