FBI investigating power grid attack in Moore County, sheriff says

MOORE COUNTY, N.C. — The FBI is leading an investigation in Moore County after the electrical power grid was “intentionally attacked,” causing a major outage.

The Moore County Sheriff’s Office confirmed those details in a news conference Sunday evening.

More than 32,000 people in Moore County are still without power. The outages began just after 7 p.m. Saturday night across communities in the area, according to Sheriff Ronnie Fields.

Sheriff Fields said firearms were used to shoot and disable equipment at two substations in Moore County.

Power could be out until Thursday, according to the sheriff’s office and Duke Energy officials. Officials added that the repairs will need to be sophisticated due to how damaged the substations were.

FBI investigation

In the news conference, deputies said the FBI is assisting with the investigation, as well as the state Bureau of Investigation.

“The NC Department of Public Safety is working with our local and federal law enforcement partners and will provide the appropriate state resources needed to assist in this investigation,” NCDPS Secretary Eddie M. Buffaloe, Jr. said.

When asked whether this was domestic terrorism, Sheriff Fields said he couldn’t say whether this was domestic terrorism or not, saying he would leave that for the feds to determine. But he added it was absolutely intentional and the perpetrators knew what they were doing.

Fields also said he couldn’t speak to what the motivation is because no group has claimed responsibility for it yet.

Deputies also announced that a curfew will be in place for Moore County throughout this week. It begins at 9 p.m. and will continue until 5 a.m. each day.

The Moore County Sports Complex on Hillcrest Park will be used as a shelter. Schools in Moore County will be closed Monday, according to the sheriff’s office.

“North Carolina Emergency Management is working with local and state agencies to provide the needed resources for the safety of Moore County residents impacted by the power outage,” said Will Ray, Director of North Carolina Emergency Management.

Deputies said they are actively searching for those believed to be responsible for the outage.

Security expert and former FBI assistant director Chris Swecker spoke to Channel 9 about what an investigation like this would look like. He said the FBI comes in any time there is an attack on critical infrastructure. Channel 9′s Genevieve Curtis asked what it would take for the case to rise to the level of domestic terrorism.

“It would have to be some articulation of motivation,” Swecker said. “You would have to have to have a suspect to know if this is politically motivated. Terrorism is committing violence to intimidate the public to affect political change, broadly speaking.”

(PHOTOS: Moore County substation attacks)

Swecker said this will be a big broad investigation, and expects to see a suspect come up pretty quickly.

Feds warned of power grid attacks

At the beginning of this year, the Department of Homeland Security warned power grid attacks were coming. The DOJ’s report said domestic terrorists have been specifically plotting “physical attacks” on power grids in the U.S. since 2010, and the threats were credible.

That’s exactly what happened in Moore County this weekend, and questions surround whether Duke Energy heeded that warning and had preventative infrastructure in place.

While North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper stated a big focus for the state and the country has been on preventing cyber attacks, the data show physical attacks on power grids are the bigger threat domestically.

Sheriff Fields said Monday the person or persons who carried out the attack were trained.

“The individual that done the damage knew exactly what they were doing to do the damage, that caused the outage that they did,” Fields said.

Swecker talked to Curtis about whether the attack revealed vulnerabilities in our power grid as it relates to our national security.

“I used to head this office at the FBI and we were always concerned about our power grid, that a big part of our critical infrastructure, communications, banking financial, all of that exists here in Charlotte,” Swecker said. “Military, outside of Charlotte when you see a target like this, you wonder if we’ve taken our eye off the ball here in terms of hardening those targets because you have to wonder how someone got so close, to put so many people in the dark.”

Officials did not share details Monday on what security measures are required by the state and federal government for these power grids.

State reaction

A spokesperson from Duke Energy released the following statement early Sunday regarding the outages saying:

“We have experienced multiple equipment failures that are affecting substations in Moore County resulting in approximately 45,000 customers without power at this time. There are indications that vandalism was a cause of the outages, and we are working with local, state and federal agencies throughout their ongoing investigation into this incident.

“We are pursuing multiple repair paths to restore as many customers as possible, as quickly and safely as possible. This is a significant local outage that is affecting nearly all customers in Moore County, and customers should be prepared for an extended outage that could last beyond today, and as long as Thursday for many customers. We will update restoration time estimates as we receive additional information. We incorporate multiple layers of security to quickly identify and respond to threats.”

Governor Roy Cooper weighed in on the situation saying:

“I appreciate the swift response from local and state emergency responders in Moore County to protect public safety and work with Duke Energy to restore power,” said Governor Cooper. “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. Moore County has strong, vibrant communities and the state will continue to provide transportation and public safety assistance.”

Harris Teeter announced that it will be providing free bags of ice to community members affected by the power outage in Moore County.

The grocery store said it will be providing this service at each location in Moore County while supplies last.

‘He’s losing a lot of business’

Channel 9′s Glenn Counts went out to Carthage to speak with residents, business owners and officials about how they are coping with the sudden, extended power outage.

The Muse family, the owners of a local restaurant, is preparing to take a large hit because of the outage.

“He’s losing a lot of business and he’s losing a lot of groceries, his food — he’s gonna have to throw away because it may be Thursday now before we get power back. Me personally, I work there with him, help him, so now I’m out of work,” said employee Matthew Muse.

The FBI is investigating whether this power outage counts as an act of domestic terrorism.

In a press conference on Sunday, Duke Energy said it was looking into ways to partially restore power to some residents. No promises have been made due to the size of the equipment that needs to be repaired.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

(WATCH BELOW: State of Emergency declared, FBI investigating power grid attack in Moore County, sheriff says)

Madison Carter

Madison Carter, wsoctv.com

Madison is an investigative reporter and anchor for Channel 9.

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