A rare, powerful earthquake struck Morocco late Friday night, resulting in the death of over 800 people and significant damage to buildings in the Atlas Mountains and the historic city of Marrakech. However, the complete extent of the devastation is yet to be determined as rescue efforts are being hindered by blocked roads to the remote mountain villages most affected.
Frightened and shocked, people rushed out into the streets as the earthquake jolted them awake. State television footage showed crowds gathered in the streets of Marrakech, reluctant to return to potentially unstable buildings.
Witnesses described the chaos caused by the quake, with dishes and wall hangings falling, people being knocked down, and intense vibrations shaking the area. The magnitude-6.8 earthquake, the strongest to hit Morocco in 120 years, caused the collapse of buildings and walls in ancient stone cities that were not designed to withstand such tremors.
Bill McGuire, a professor emeritus at University College London, explained that in places where powerful earthquakes are rare, buildings are not constructed to withstand strong ground shaking, leading to high casualties. McGuire predicted that the final death toll could climb into the thousands once more information is available. Aftershocks are also expected, which can cause further casualties and hinder search and rescue operations.
Reports suggest that the famous Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech, built in the 12th century, sustained damage, but the extent is still unclear. Videos shared by Moroccans on social media showed parts of the iconic red walls surrounding the old city, a UNESCO World Heritage site, also damaged.
PHOTOS: Powerful quake in Morocco kills more than 600 people and damages historic buildings in Marrakech
The Moroccan Interior Ministry reported that at least 820 people died, predominantly in Marrakech and the five provinces near the earthquake’s epicenter, and another 672 people were injured, with 205 in serious condition.
Rescuers worked tirelessly throughout the night to search for survivors amidst the darkness, dust, and rubble.
A town official near the epicenter revealed that several homes in nearby towns partially or completely collapsed, while electricity and roads were cut off in some areas. Authorities are currently clearing roads in Al Haouz Province to allow access for ambulances and aid to reach the affected populations. However, due to the vast distances between mountain villages, it will take time to ascertain the full extent of the damage.
The Moroccan military and emergency services have mobilized aid efforts in the affected areas. However, the rescue operations have been impeded by blocked and congested roads caused by collapsed rocks. Trucks loaded with blankets, camp cots, and lighting equipment are attempting to reach the heavily impacted areas.
On the route from Marrakech to Al Haouz, emergency vehicles with blaring sirens and honking cars navigated through piles of red rocks that had fallen from the mountainside, obstructing the road. Red Cross workers were seen clearing a boulder that was blocking the two-lane highway.
In Marrakech, later on Saturday morning, ambulances and motorcycles could be seen near the old city, where business had mostly resumed. Despite roadblocks, tourists and passersby maneuvered around cracked sections of the clay ochre walls, taking pictures of the fragments and dust that had fallen onto the sidewalk and street.
World leaders expressed condolences and offered to send aid or rescue crews. Messages of support poured in from countries across Europe, as well as from a Group of 20 summit in India, the Middle East, and beyond. The President of Turkey, whose country experienced a massive earthquake earlier this year resulting in tens of thousands of casualties, was among those proposing assistance. France and Germany, with large populations of Moroccan origin, also offered their help, and both the leaders of Ukraine and Russia expressed support for Morocco.
As of now, the Moroccan government has not formally requested outside help, which is a necessary step for external rescue teams to be deployed.
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) reported an initial magnitude of 6.8 for the earthquake, which occurred at 11:11 p.m. (2211 GMT) on Friday. The shaking lasted several seconds, and a magnitude-4.9 aftershock was recorded 19 minutes later.
The earthquake’s epicenter was near the town of Ighil in Al Haouz Province, approximately 70 kilometers (43.5 miles) south of Marrakech. Al Haouz is known for its picturesque villages and valleys nestled in the High Atlas Mountains, with villages built into the mountainsides.
The USGS stated that the epicenter was 18 kilometers (11 miles) below the Earth’s surface, while Morocco’s seismic agency estimated it to be 11 kilometers (7 miles) deep. Shallow earthquakes like this one are more dangerous.
Initial reports indicate severe damages and casualties across the Marrakech-Safi region, which is home to over 4.5 million people, according to government statistics.
Earthquakes are relatively rare in North Africa. Lahcen Mhanni, Head of the Seismic Monitoring and Warning Department at the National Institute of Geophysics, stated that this earthquake is the most powerful ever recorded in the region.
In 1960, a magnitude 5.8 earthquake near the Moroccan city of Agadir caused significant casualties.
The Agadir quake led to changes in construction regulations in Morocco, but many buildings, particularly rural homes, are still not built to withstand earthquakes.
In 2004, a 6.4 magnitude earthquake near the coastal city of Al Hoceima claimed over 600 lives.
Friday’s earthquake was felt as far away as Portugal and Algeria, according to the Portuguese Institute for Sea and Atmosphere and Algeria’s Civil Defense agency, responsible for emergency response.