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North Carolina power cut by shooting could come back earlier than planned

Workers work on equipment at the West End Substation in West End, N.C., on Monday, after an attack on critical infrastructure has caused a power outage to many around Southern Pines, N.C.
Karl B DeBlaker
Workers work on equipment at the West End Substation in West End, N.C., on Monday, after an attack on critical infrastructure has caused a power outage to many around Southern Pines, N.C.

RALEIGH, N.C. — Duke Energy said it expects to restore power ahead of schedule to thousands of homes in a central North Carolina county that have been without electricity for several days after an attack on the electric grid.

Duke Energy spokesman Jeff Brooks said the company expects to have power back Wednesday just before midnight in Moore County. The company had previously estimated it would be restored Thursday morning.

About 35,000 Duke energy customers were still without power Tuesday, down from more than 45,000 at the height of the outage Saturday.

The outages began shortly after 7 p.m. Saturday night after one or more people drove up to two substations, breached the gates and opened fire on them, authorities have said. Police have not released a motive or said what kind of firearm was used.

Sam Stephenson, a power delivery specialist for Duke Energy, said the company has been able to implement "rolling power-ups" in the northern part of the county, giving some customers power in 2- to 3-hour waves.

The governor calls for an assessment of critical infrastructure

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper called for a thorough assessment of the state's critical infrastructure Tuesday morning at the monthly Council of State meeting — a collective body of elected officials comprising the executive branch. He said this will likely include discussions with federal regulators, lawmakers and utility companies about how to bolster security and prevent future attacks.

In the short-term, the state has sent generators to Moore County and is helping feed residents. Law enforcement in surrounding counties has been more vigilant about monitoring nearby substations since the attack, he said.

"This seemed to be too easy," Cooper told reporters after the meeting. "People knew what they were doing to disable the substation, and for that much damage to be caused — causing so much problem, economic loss, safety challenges to so many people for so long — I think we have to look at what we might need to do to harden that infrastructure."

Mike Causey, the North Carolina insurance commissioner and state fire marshal, called the attack "a wakeup call to provide better security at our power substations."

Many businesses around the county that is about 60 miles southwest of the state capital of Raleigh are closed at a normally busy time of year for tourism and holiday shopping. Schools are also closed through Thursday, and traffic lights are out around the area. A curfew remains in place from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.

County officials said 54 people spent Monday night at an emergency shelter at the county sports complex in Carthage, up from 19 people the night before, as temperatures dropped below freezing after sundown. Many more residents have stopped by the shelter for food, warmth, showers or to charge their devices.

Republican state Sen. Tom McInnis, who represents Moore County, said the General Assembly is awaiting updates on how the perpetrators of this attack might be charged and may consider new legislation related to the punishment when the legislature returns in January.

"I'm reasonably confident there will be new legislation that will be brought forward in the long session to address the potential that, again, that the crime and the penalty need to be leveled and evened out," McInnis said at a news conference Tuesday.

Brian Harrell, former assistant secretary for infrastructure protection at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said a determined adversary with insider knowledge of how to cripple key components of critical infrastructure is difficult to stop and requires an industry-wide collective defense.

DHS and energy companies have been monitoring what Harrell, who now leads security for an energy company servicing multiple states, identified as a significant uptick in nefarious online discussions about sabotaging distribution and transmission substations.

Investigators have said whoever shot up the substations knew what they were doing. But they have not released further information about how much inside knowledge they may have had.

"What impacts you can impact me, so threat information-sharing is absolutely essential," Harrell told The Associated Press. "Over 85% of all critical infrastructure is owned by the private sector, so we need to have more regular conversations amongst security partners to identify, disrupt and mitigate" threats to infrastructure.

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