RALEIGH, N.C. – Workers were setting aside equipment that wasn't in use when they caused a massive power outage that drove thousands of tourists from two islands in the Outer Banks, North Carolina transportation officials said.
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The new details on how the accident happened came as utility officials announced that they hope to have power restored to Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands by early next week, more than nine days after the underground cables were damaged. Even a weeklong outage is enough to dent the bottom lines of island businesses, some of which are suing PCL Construction.
State Transportation Department spokesman Tim Hass said workers doing construction on a bridge between islands stuck the steel casing in a spot where they intended to leave it temporarily. The long, tube-like metal device is used to ensure the proper angle and depth for concrete pilings that support the bridge.
"They had finished using it elsewhere a little ways away, and they were taking the sleeve out to move it, just to put it aside for the next time they would use it," Hass said. "They were cleaning up and moving equipment, that kind of thing."
The damaged transmission cables were buried under more than 7 feet (2 meters) of sand where the accident happened, utility officials said.
Transportation Department personnel were on another section of the approximately 3-mile (5-kilometer) bridge where there was active construction when the lines were damaged around 4:30 a.m. on July 27, Hass said.
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A PCL Construction spokeswoman didn't respond to messages seeking comment Wednesday.
The outage forced an estimated 50,000 visitors to leave the two islands at the height of the make-or-break tourism season for local businesses. Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative said it hopes to have power restored between Saturday and Monday.
At least three lawsuits filed separately this week against PCL Construction argue the company failed to take proper precautions to ensure its work didn't financially harm nearby businesses.
A Wilmington lawyer leading one of the federal lawsuits said the new information further illustrates that the company wasn't being careful enough. Additionally, she said they'll have to prove that the construction company had a duty to avoid causing economic problems for the locals.
"The wrongful acts definitely are there," said Jean Sutton Martin, whose clients include a cafe, horse stable and a local renovation business. "The more that's uncovered, the more that it's shown."
Hers and the two other lawsuits are each seeking class-action status so they can represent potentially thousands who lost money due to the outage.
Separately, scores of vacationers are navigating the sometimes confusing process of trying to get repaid for lost travel expenses. Some are filing claims with travel insurance companies, while others are seeking refunds from the property owners. Travel insurance plans vary, and many don't cover man-made disasters.
Tianna Lee was driving to Rodanthe from Connecticut on Saturday with her husband and two young children when she found out about the mandatory evacuation for Hatteras Island. Lee said their weeklong rental cost them about $1,700, and she hasn't gotten an answer yet about a refund. Her family didn't purchase travel insurance.
"I do hope that we're refunded. We did not step one single foot onto the island," she said.
She said she's been frustrated by the lack of communication by the realty company.
"I don't know that we'll ever go back to the Outer Banks," she said. "It kind of puts a salty taste in your mouth."
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