Local News

Power restored after substation damage triggered outage

LAKE PLACID - Six employees who showed up for work at JM Cabinets got an unexpected day off Monday. Jerry Morrison, the owner of the cabinet manufacturing business, said he had no choice but to send the employees home after learning Monday morning that electricity would likely not be restored for most of the day. "They can't really get any work done," he reasoned. JM Cabinets was one of 1,279 businesses and residences, generally in Highlands Park Estates and part of the area along County Road 621, that remained without power in sweltering heat for much of Monday.
However, power was restored about 2:15 p.m., officials said. The power went out sometime around midnight after a fire at the Highlands Park electric substation caused extensive damage. "We strongly suspect vandalism," said Paul McGehee, director of business development for Glades Electric Cooperative. "It's happened before." McGehee said that in one previous incident someone shot at the transformer. The area has become a popular spot for people partying at night, he said. The Highlands County Sheriff's Office, as of Monday afternoon, continued to investigate the incident, Chief Deputy Mark Schrader said. McGehee said he and others believe someone may have fired shots at the substation, sparking a fire that caused considerable damage to equipment there. More than eight hours after the fire began, some of the metal was still smoldering. An arson investigation team from the State Fire Marshal's Office in Lake Wales visited the site, he said. But while vandalism and arson were possibilities, no cause has been eliminated, and that includes lightning, said Tracy Vaughn, director of operations. Nevertheless, Vaughn said, plans were to go ahead with offering a reward - later determined to be $5,000 - for information leading to the conviction of anyone responsible for the vandalism that caused at least $500,000 in damage. That might increase if the transformer was damaged, Vaughn said. McGehee said the reward would be offered through Heartland Crime Stoppers. Anyone with information can call Heartland Crime Stoppers at (800) 226-TIPS to be eligible for the reward. Investigators also are seeking information about the identity of the driver of a vehicle who told a deputy that "they shot it (the substation) again," as the deputy arrived at the scene They said he was 45 to 55 years old and driving a maroon-colored Ford Crown Victoria with a spotlight attached to the vehicle. To restore power, Glades used a mobile transformer, so the testing of the transformer that was at the site wasn't expected to happen for a day or two, Vaughn said. Some residents disagreed on whether lightning was a likely cause of the fire. Billy Hill said he believed that any storm activity occurring stopped before the fire. But Eduardo Vega, another resident, said a neighbor told him he saw a considerable amount of lightning just before the storm. The neighbor hold him that "he could see sparks" from the substation area, he said. Regardless of the cause, Hill endured without air conditioning more than 10 hours after the power went off. He said he had planned to do his laundry, but instead ended up working outside because of the power outage. Vega, however, spent the morning in cool air conditioning, while working at Precision Auto Body, which is outside of the area served by Glades. He said electricity was off at home, but was hoping it would be back on when he finished work. jmeisel@highlandstoday.com (863) 386-5834