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A powerful earthquake struck Morocco on Friday night, killing more than 2,000 people and setting off frantic rescue efforts through rubble-strewn city streets and remote rural areas as some residents sifted through mountains of debris with their bare hands.
The earthquake, which had a magnitude of at least 6.8 and was centered about 50 miles from the southern city of Marrakesh, was the strongest to hit the area in a century, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It rippled through the center of the country, shaking not only Marrakesh but also Agadir, a resort on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, and Ouarzazate, a major city in the southeast.
Much of the affected zone is rural, with many houses made from mud bricks, a traditional construction method that is highly vulnerable to earthquakes and heavy rains.
Scenes of devastation were unfolding across the country. In Marrakesh, the main city of southern Morocco, residents poured out of their homes onto the city’s cobblestone streets to find piles of rubble from buildings that had crumbled around them, including mounds of red dust from the walled old city, or medina.
In the hardest-hit rural areas, Moroccans climbed through the canyons between collapsed homes that cascaded across roads and towns, and tried to retrieve their dead.
About 30 miles southwest of Marrakesh, in the town of Amizmiz near the epicenter, Yasmina Bennani was about to go to sleep on Friday night when she heard a loud noise. The shaking cracked walls, broke vases and lamps, and sent chunks of ceiling falling to the floor, clogging her kitchen sink and stove with dust and debris.
“I felt terrorized,” said Ms. Bennani, 38, a journalist who, like many in the area, lives in a house made of mud bricks. “It didn’t last long, but felt like years.”
At least 2,059 people were killed in the quake, according to the Moroccan interior ministry, and more than 2,000 were injured.
The precise size of the quake was not yet clear. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated its magnitude at 6.8, but the Moroccan geological institute put it at 7.2. That would make it more than twice as large, according to the logarithmic scale on which earthquakes are measured. The U.S. agency said local estimates can often be more accurate, but initial readings of magnitude are measured automatically and need to be reviewed by seismologists.
The contours of the damage were also still taking shape on Saturday. But it was clear that the scope of the catastrophe was extensive, with the rural provinces outside of Marrakesh the hardest hit. According to early breakdowns of casualties by provinces, the death toll was especially heavy in the rural Haouz region southeast of Marrakesh, which includes parts of the High Atlas Mountains.
The United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a statement that more than 300,000 civilians in Marrakesh and its outskirts had been affected by the earthquake. “Many families are trapped under the rubble of their homes, and damage to parts of Marrakesh’s Medina, a UNESCO World Heritage Site have also been reported,” the statement said.
Moroccan architects say the area near the epicenter has many earthen houses that are not built to withstand an earthquake of this strength. Omar Farkhani, the former president of the Moroccan National Order of Architects, said that in such areas, the residents are often too poor to pay architects and end up building their houses themselves or with the help of low-skilled workers.
Despite the government’s efforts to impose better earthquake-resistant building standards in recent years, the architects said, many builders still flout the regulations to cut construction costs.
“Given the state of the buildings in the country, this death toll was kind of expected,” said Anass Amazirh, an architect in the northern city of Casablanca, where residents felt the earth shaking but there were no immediate reports of casualties or destruction.
The early rescue efforts in some of these hard-hit rural areas were proving to be challenging, in part because many of the villages are built into the red craggy mountains around Marrakesh, but also because the few roads snaking through the countryside were blocked by fallen debris, according to 2M, Morocco’s state-owned media. Phone service and electricity were also out in some of the most affected areas.
There was no word on the disaster from Morocco’s leader, King Mohammed VI, for more than 12 hours after the quake struck. When he did speak, he did not address the public but issued a brief statement noting that he had instructed the country’s armed forces to contribute to the rescue efforts. The Moroccan Army said the air force was evacuating casualties from the hard-hit Haouz province to a military hospital in Marrakesh.
The king’s whereabouts when the quake hit were not immediately clear, but he is frequently absent from the country without explanation. His cabinet, which appears to run the day-to-day affairs of state, rarely informs Moroccan citizens about his whereabouts unless announcing his attendance at an official event.
Still, there have been few, if any, public hints in Morocco of the kind of political instability that has rocked other parts of Africa and the Middle East recently. The more pressing issue for most Moroccans is the economy.
Like many of its neighbors in the Middle East and North Africa, Morocco has suffered several blows over the last few years, starting with the coronavirus pandemic, which put the country’s vital tourism industry on ice. A long-running drought has sapped agricultural livelihoods, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent the price of imported wheat and other key goods soaring.
Before the pandemic, the tourism industry alone accounted for more than 7 percent of gross domestic product and 565,000 jobs in a country of about 37 million people, much of it concentrated in Marrakesh and the surrounding region, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Countries from Algeria to Israel to Taiwan were quick to offer help.
France, a former colonial power in Morocco, was one of the first to do so. The French Embassy in Morocco opened a crisis hotline and the mayor of the southern French port city of Marseille said that he would send firefighters to help with rescue efforts in Marrakesh, a sister city.
President Biden said in a statement on Saturday morning that his administration was in contact with Moroccan officials and offered help.
“We are working expeditiously to ensure American citizens in Morocco are safe, and stand ready to provide any necessary assistance for the Moroccan people,” Mr. Biden said.
Officials in Turkey, which was struck by a massive and deadly earthquake in February, said the country was ready to send 265 aid workers, as well as 1,000 tents. But all first would need Morocco to formally request assistance, a step required before foreign crews can deploy.
Images coming out of Marrakesh’s historic city center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site built in the 11th century, showed widespread damage. Gray remnants of collapsed buildings slumped on street corners, and some cars sagged under piles of fallen concrete.
Raja Bouri, 33, who lives on the outskirts of Marrakesh, said that the walls of her home had withstood the quake but that everything in her kitchen had fallen to the floor.
“I never felt anything like this in my life,” Ms. Bouri said. “It felt like a plane fell on me.”
In Agadir, a beach resort popular with tourists roughly 160 miles southwest of Marrakesh, Jihane Maftouh, 36, recounted the terror she felt upon feeling the first tremors.
“We prayed, heard things breaking. I got dressed and left the house and didn’t even look back,” she said.
Heartbreaking scenes played out elsewhere as well. A woman, who did not give her name, told Moroccan state television that her husband and four children had died in the quake.
“Mustapha, Hassan, Ilhem, Ghizlaine, Ilyes,” she said, her voice choked with emotion. “Everything I had is gone. I am all alone.”
In the small, mud-brick village of Mezguida in southeastern Moroccan, home to about 1,000 people, residents said virtually the entire village had slept outside on Friday night, fearing aftershocks. It is not uncommon in rural Morocco for families to sleep outdoors on their roofs during the hot summer months to keep cool. Many in the village were planning to spend a second night sleeping outside on Saturday.
Serious earthquakes in Morocco, which the U.S. Geological Survey calls “uncommon but not unexpected,” have inflicted deaths and significant economic damage before.
Morocco is positioned at the juncture of a slow-motion tectonic crash between the African and Eurasian plates. Over millions of years, the movements have crumpled the landscape, raised the Atlas Mountains and crafted a complex network of fractures through the region.
The rate of collision near Morocco is fairly slow, with the plates colliding at a mere 4 to 6 millimeters per year, which means earthquakes do not happen often. For comparison, the land around the San Andreas Fault shifts some 50 millimeters each year. But over many years, the slow movement near Africa’s northern coast can build enough stress to cause violent quakes, including yesterday’s deadly temblor.
The worst in Morocco’s recent history was a 5.8-magnitude earthquake that killed at least 12,000 people in March 1960.
Agadir crumbled under that quake’s force. About a third of its population perished. Restaurants, shops and the central market were leveled, and thousands of people were buried under concrete.
Vivian Yee, Mike Ives and Maya Wei-Haas and contributed reporting.