CARTHAGE, N.C. (AP) — Tens of thousands of people braced for days without electricity in a North Carolina county, which includes an area where residents assigned to one of the Army’s largest and busiest bases live. Authorities say two power substations were shot up by one or more people with apparent criminal intent.
On Monday, across Moore County, southwest of Raleigh, businesses handed out free food or coffee and businesses without internet conducted transactions in cash. One local economic official described the area known for its golf courses and local pottery as “eerily quiet” at a time of year when businesses are normally full of tourists and holiday shoppers. County schools were closed.
“An attack like this on critical infrastructure is a serious, intentional crime and I expect state and federal authorities to thoroughly investigate and bring those responsible to justice,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper wrote on Twitter.
Traffic lights were out throughout the county. Drivers treated intersections as four-way stops, which caused some traffic congestion in communities such as downtown Carthage. A steady hum of honks could be heard as people signaled to each other when they should go at each nonfunctional traffic light. Many local businesses and restaurants displayed “Closed” signs in the windows and had empty parking lots.
Moore County — which also includes the town of Southern Pines — lies just west of Fort Bragg. Commands across the installation told Army Times that they were working feverishly to support their personnel who were impacted.
An unknown number of soldiers have been affected by the outage, which created a last-second childcare crisis and poses other risks such as food spoilage in refrigerators without electric power and water outages for rural residents whose homes rely on electric-pump wells.
Sgt. Maj. Alex Licea, an XVII Airborne Corps spokesperson, the unit which oversees the installation and the majority of Fort Bragg troops, said “soldiers and civilian personnel who reside in Moore County and work for the XVIII Airborne Corps and its subordinate units were authorized late report call today.”
Licea said top leaders “continue to monitor” the situation and have directed subordinate commanders “to ensure all soldiers, our civilian personnel and their families have a warm and safe place to sleep and support and ensure access to food and water for those impacted.”
Maj. Russell Gordon, 1st Special Forces Command spokesperson, said leaders, “have reached out to [affected] people...to stay engaged and aware while ensuring they’re [taken] care of.” He added that many troops and families were stepping up and providing mutual aid — including his.
“I’m currently housing and helping a family of four,” Gordon said.
Maj. Rick Dickson, public affairs director for the Army’s John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, also located at the installation, said the command’s classes continued Monday despite the outage. Personnel impacted were excused from training, he said, “to assist with their families where needed.”
A ‘serious, intentional crime’
The power outage began just after 7 p.m. Saturday when an unknown person or group damaged two power substations with gunfire, leading officials to announce a state of emergency and a Sunday night curfew.
Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields said at a Sunday news conference that authorities have not determined a motive. He said someone pulled up and, “opened fire on the substation, the same thing with the other one.”
“No group has stepped up to acknowledge or accept that they’re the ones that done it,” Fields said. “We’re looking at all avenues.”
The sheriff said the FBI was working with state investigators to determine who was responsible. He also said, “it was targeted.”
“It wasn’t random,” Fields said.
Duke Energy spokesman Jeff Brooks said multiple pieces of equipment were damaged and will have to be replaced. He said while the company is trying to restore power as quickly as possible, he braced customers for the potential of outages lasting days.
“We are looking at a pretty sophisticated repair with some fairly large equipment and so we do want citizens of the town to be prepared that this will be a multiday restoration for most customers, extending potentially as long as Thursday,” Brooks said at the news conference.
Tim Locklear, the county’s school superintendent, announced classes would be canceled Monday.
“As we move forward, we’ll be taking it day by day in making those decisions,” Locklear said.
The Pilot newspaper in Southern Pines reported that one of its reporters 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.
How locals are adjusting
One impacted soldier, who requested anonymity because “there are people in much more dire circumstances than my family’s inconvenience,” told Army Times he’d moved his family into a hotel due to the outage. All the refrigerated and frozen food they had stored is now gone, he said.
Certain neighborhoods have improved to a rolling blackout, he said, with his home now receiving three hours of power per nine-hour period.
He described driving through pitch-black streets during Sunday’s total outage as, “wild,” adding, “You don’t realize how much we rely on lights and electricity until it’s all out.”
Kalai and Christine Balutski of Pinebluff sat under a heater Monday morning drinking warm beverages at the Red’s Corner food truck lot in Southern Pines. The couple had been without power since 7 p.m. Saturday and said they have been driving to restaurants in the next county over to eat warm meals and watch football while they wait for updates.
“We got two dogs at home, so we can’t just up and leave,” Kalai Balutski said. “We’re working off of a power brick to keep our phones charged and candles in one room to keep it warm enough to sleep.”
Bundled in a beanie, boots and a Pittsburgh Steelers jacket, Christine Balutski said she has been struggling to get work done for her remote IT job for the hospital system without WiFi access at home.
Roughly 35,000 electric customers in the county were without power Monday, down by several thousand from the peak of the outages, according to poweroutage.us. Temperatures dropped below freezing early Monday, and lows in the 40s were expected again later in the week.
About 20 people spent the night at an emergency shelter at the Moore County Sports Complex in Carthage, said Phil Harris, executive director of the local American Red Cross chapter. Harris, who’s managing a team of nine volunteers, said plenty more have stopped by for food, warmth or to charge their devices.
“If you’ve got no power, you probably don’t have any heat, so with winter weather coming in, it’s a nice place to stay,” Harris said.
The holiday season is one of the busiest times of year for the region’s tourism-dependent economy, said Linda Parsons, president of the Moore County Chamber of Commerce.
As they did during the pandemic, businesses that can’t open or lack foot traffic were getting creative with online sales. Some hardware and other stores are doing cash-only transactions, she said. Other businesses are offering free food to residents without power, such as the Southern Pines Growler, which gave out free coffee and pancakes Sunday.
“Our community has done an excellent job coming together ... honestly, it’s quite heartwarming,” she said. “We’re making the best out of a bad situation.”
Andrew Wilkins, a conservation advocate who grew up in Moore County, was driving Saturday night from Washington to his parents’ small farm in Whispering Pines when he noticed the street lights were out in Carthage. He arrived at a “pitch black street” and little information about the cause or scope of the blackout.
“When the power was cut, the flow of information was cut too,” Wilkins told The Associated Press.
He spent the weekend helping his parents link a generator to their well for fresh drinking water and preparing them for cold nights without heat. Local grocery stores, such as Food Lion and Harris Teeter, have been distributing drinks, ice and pantry items to those who lost power, he said.
“Their home, like many rural homes, relies on a well for water for fresh, clean water, and it’s powered by electricity,” Wilkins said. “So when the power went out, the well stopped working, and when the well stops working, we slowly lose pressure until we lose water altogether. People are going to really feel the pinch from this as it goes on.”
Associated Press writer Gary D. Robertson in Raleigh, North Carolina, contributed to this report. This article also contains earlier reporting by the Associated Press about the outage’s causes.
Davis Winkie covers the Army for Military Times. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, and served five years in the Army Guard. His investigations earned the Society of Professional Journalists' 2023 Sunshine Award and consecutive Military Reporters and Editors honors, among others. Davis was also a 2022 Livingston Awards finalist.