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Search warrants issued, FBI applies to retrieve cell phone records in search of power grid attack suspects

The country was warned about terror attacks that could target U.S. infrastructure and certain groups days before shootings that knocked out Moore County's power grid, leaving tens of thousands without heat or electricity.

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WRAL staff
CARTHAGE, N.C. — On Thursday, investigators issued multiple search warrants related to attack on the power grid. The warrants, which will remain sealed, are on the state level.

The FBI has also applied for a Federal Order to retrieve cell phone records to identify people in the area of the substations on Saturday night.

They are still working on finding the suspects and the motive.

“If we would have found them easily, we would have had someone under arrest by now," said the Moore County Sheriff's Office.

With power restored, heavily-armed guards with long guns were seen protecting substations in Moore County.

The country was warned about terror attacks which could target U.S. infrastructure and certain groups days before shootings that knocked out Moore County's power grid, leaving tens of thousands without heat or electricity.

The FBI on Wednesday released a poster urging people to come forward with information about the targeted attacks on two power substations on Saturday night that left roughly 45,000 people in the dark and cold for days.

Gov. Cooper announced a reward of up to $75,000 for information leading to the arrest of the person or persons responsible for the attack on the power grid. The reward money is being offered by the State, Duke Energy and Moore County, who are each offering up to $25,000.

FBI seeks info about attack on Moore County power stations, days-long outage

What to know:

  • Duke Energy reports that as of Wednesday morning, all substation equipment damaged from the vandalism has been fully repaired or replaced.
  • The Dec. 3 attack left 45,000 Moore County customers without electricity or heat.
  • The outages were down to just over 1,200 on Wednesday at 4 p.m.
  • Duke Energy estimates power will be fully restored on Wednesday by 11:59 p.m.
  • The state of emergency ends at 5 a.m. on Thursday
  • The Moore County Sheriff's Office and FBI are requesting information. Tip line: 910-947-4444 or tips.fbi.gov.
  • Moore County Schools, closed since Monday, will remain closed Wednesday and Thursday.
  • List: Where Moore residents can find food, water, WiFi

Moore County Schools planning to reopen Friday

Moore County Schools is planning to reopen Friday on a normal schedule for students and staff.

The district's schools have been closed since the Dec. 3 attack.

"Moore County Schools thanks you for your patience and resilience as we worked through the power outage this week," the district wrote in a Facebook post.

US warned of terrorism threats days earlier

A bulletin dated Nov. 30 from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's National Terrorism Advisory System indicates the agency warned the country of heightened threats to critical infrastructure just three days before the attack in Moore County.

The warning came after targeted attacks on the LGBTQIA+ community, most recently a November shooting at a bar in Colorado, but also cited the Jan. 6, 2021, attacks at the U.S. Capitol.

"Targets of potential violence include public gatherings, faith-based institutions, the LGBTQI+ community, schools, racial and religious minorities, government facilities and personnel, U.S. critical infrastructure, the media and perceived ideological opponents," according to the bulletin.

Investigators are working to determine if there could be a connection between the Dec. 3 Moore County attack and a drag show held the same evening at the Sunrise Theater in Southern Pines that sparked controversy in the area.

Saturday's drag performance drew a flood of attention from religious and alt-right protesters. A police line stood between those protesters and counter-protesters, who were supporting the show outside the theater with rainbow flags.

Once the substations were shot out, the theater went dark about 40 minutes into the show. The show went on as a sing-along, with the crowd using cell phones to light the theater.

"I'm always concerned about critical infrastructure, and I think we need to learn from this incident -- because these kinds of things cannot happen," Gov. Roy Cooper said during a briefing on Monday. "I do think we need to take a long-term view about making sure our critical infrastructure is hardened. We'll be talking with state and federal officials about that as we move forward."

What we know about the attack

The outages started Saturday after 7 p.m. after someone shot up two substations located in West End and Carthage, according to the Moore County Sheriff's Office. Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields said just before midnight that the outage was being investigated as a "criminal occurrence."

Fields said that crews at the substations found "extensive damage" when inspecting the equipment; He also said that there was evidence that firearms had been used to disable the equipment.

"As we complete the investigation could it rise to that level [of domestic terrorism]? Absolutely," Fields said.

Fields did have strong words for the shooters.

“Cowardly is what I'd call it," Fields said. "We don't have anything. No motivation and no group has stepped up to acknowledge or accept what has been done. I call them cowards.”

The outage impacted nearly every Duke Energy customer in Moore County and included people who depend on electricity for medical purposes, whether at home or in nursing facilities. One person died during the outage, but officials have not yet confirmed the death was due to power loss.

The outages also triggered a state of emergency. School was canceled, a curfew was implemented and criminals have taken advantage of the outages with increased breaking and entering incidents, including attempting to break into a gun store. Families are struggling to stay warm without heating systems during the cold weather, and worrying about how to feed themselves when their food goes bad without refrigeration.

Not the first time the power grid in NC has been attacked

Just last month, on Nov. 11, a substation in Jones County was damaged by vandals. The station belonged to the Carteret-Craven Electric Cooperative (CCEC), near Maysville. More than 12,000 CCEC members were without power for approximately two hours as a result.

"CCEC monitors its system constantly, and soon after the outage occurred, crews were dispatched to begin the restoration process and found that the Maysville substation had been vandalized," said officials in a release.

The vandals damaged transformers and caused them to leak coolant oil. The total cost of the damage is expected to exceed $500,000.

When asked about security measures at the two power substations damaged in Moore County, Jeff Brooks. a spokesperson for Duke Energy, said, "For security reasons, we don't speak specifically about measures we have at our facilities. What I can say is that Duke Energy incorporates multiple layers of security across its system to monitor and protect critical infrastructure."

Officials have yet to answer whether or not the substations were guarded by security cameras.

Given that both Moore County substations, which are about five miles apart, were targeted in a gunfire attack, many customers want to know how authorities will ensure this cannot happen in the future.

Consider there are hundreds of electric substations across the state, each one a potential target. In this case, one substation was shot up and within an hour, another.

"We know there may be some things that need to change to make sure our infrastructure is protected," said Cooper.

How vulnerable is North Carolina's electric grid?

"Well, I would have liked to have thought that is is less vulnerable than it apparently is," said Jon Wellnghoff, CEO of Grid Policy and former head of the Federal Energy Regulator Commission. He says it doesn't take much sophistication to take out a transformer.

"A deer rifle is sufficient," he said.

Spokesman Jeff Brooks says Duke Energy continues to invest in cyber and physical security along its grid. However, Wellinghoff says, unlike those in Moore County, substations should be blocked from view with walls, sandbags, or even an opaque fence wrapping.

"The grid is still vulnerable, and it's still relatively inexpensive to mitigate those vulnerabilities and we should be moving forward as rapidly as possible to address the problem," said Wellinghoff.

Moore County Public Schools closing

Due to the ongoing widespread power outage all Moore County public schools will be closed on Wednesday and Thursday. It will be announced Thursday by 4 p.m. whether schools will also be closed on Friday.

Schools will be closed to all staff on Wednesday. It will be announced Wednesday by 4 p.m. whether schools will be closed to staff on Thursday.

“Our goal is to resume normal operations on Friday, if possible,” Superintendent Tim Locklair said.

Timeline for restoration

North Carolina Emergency Management, state and local law enforcement officials are working in a coordinated response with Duke Energy to restore power as quickly as possible. State and federal law enforcement are on the ground and have begun investigating in coordination with local law enforcement.

Duke Energy on Tuesday said power should be restored by 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday, earlier than expected.

Wellinghoff explained the severity of the damage to WRAL News.

"Somebody with a high-powered rifle puts a bullet through the case of a transformer and once it goes into the case of the transformer it hits the coils of the transformer, shorts it out, and it's gone; That that device is no longer operable," said Wellinghoff. "It can't be fixed, it needs to be replaced. It cannot be repaired."

Wellinghoff also shared insight into the repair process.

"A lot of these transformers also are sort of one-offs. It's not like you can cookie-cutter replace them with another one from some other utility in the next county or the next state," said Wellinghoff. "They have to be made sort of custom for the particular substation that they're in. So if they don't have spares for that particular substation, it could take a considerable amount of time."

Community coping after massive blackout

People are coming together in Moore County to provide help for their neighbors during and after this unexpected outage.

Power came back in downtown Southern Pines around noon on Wednesday. However, it will be a few days before some of the restaurants - like SoPie's Pizzeria - can reopen.

The owner says they're out thousands of dollars in food and business.

Families at home are doing the same, adding up their losses from the outage.

Danielle Harner, a single mom and teacher with two daughters at home, said they lost all their food because they were unable to get ice.

"It's a little bit tougher. There's only one income, so to provide extra when you've already allotted for your month and now it's kind of double from what you expected," she said.

Richard Baines needed a a place to charge his wife's oxygen tank.

Both found help at First Baptist Church in Pinehurst, where Baptists on Mission mobilized dozens of volunteers to hand out bottled water, cook warm meals and provide showers and laundry service.

"It's a blessing," said Baines.