Moroccan Earthquake Kills Over 2,000, Rescuers Dig for Survivors

The 6.8-magnitude earthquake, the strongest in 120 years, hit the remote High Atlas Mountains southwest of Marrakesh, complicating rescue operations.
September 10, 2023
People pass through over the rubble of a destroyed building following yesterday’s earthquake, on September 10, 2023 in Moulay Brahim, Morocco. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

A powerful earthquake struck remote mountain villages southwest of Marrakesh in Morocco late Friday night, killing more than 2,000 people and injuring thousands, many of them critically.

Rescue teams were still digging through rubble in remote mountainous areas to find victims late Saturday night.

It was the country’s largest earthquake in 120 years and its deadliest since the 1960 Agadir earthquake, which killed between 12,000 and 15,000 people. The most recent major earthquake to hit the country was in 2004, when a 6.3-magnitude tremor struck the port city of Al Hoceima, killing more than 600 people.

The 6.8-magnitude earthquake rattled Morocco’s High Atlas Mountain range at the relatively shallow depth of 11.4 miles, according to the United States Geological Survey, with its epicenter about 45 miles southwest of Marrakesh.

The quake caused widespread destruction and damaged historic buildings in Marrakesh, a city of some 840,000 people and a popular tourist destination.

The hardest-hit regions were the rugged mountain areas close to the epicenter that were difficult for rescue crews to reach, especially after roads were destroyed, authorities and state media reported.

“There was a feeling of panic and anxiety,” Mohamed Bouden, head of the Atlas Center for Analysis of Political and Institutional Indicators, told The Media Line from the capital, Rabat.

“I’m in the capital, which is a few hundred miles away, but I felt the earth moving. It took me a while before I felt safe to re-enter my house,” he said, adding that it was his first experience in an earthquake.

“I was sitting, and I felt the house shaking and I heard noise outside, and I ran outside fearing the worst,” Bouden said.

The World Health Organization said that more than 300,000 people were affected in Marrakesh and surrounding areas.

“The situation now, almost 20 hours after the earthquake first hit, seems to be relatively under control in the big cities, but in the devastated areas the authorities are still in search-and-rescue mode,” Bouden said.

The Royal Moroccan Armed Forces warned residents to pay close attention to follow-up tremors.

“We remind you of the need to exercise caution and take safety measures due to the risk of aftershocks,” the military wrote on X (formerly Twitter).

“The earthquake left behind destruction and victims in large numbers, clearly affecting my psyche, the psyche of my family, and Moroccans in general,” Shoaib Bagadi, a Moroccan journalist based in Rabat, told The Media Line.

Many Moroccans spent Friday night on the streets for fear of aftershocks. Health authorities called on people to donate blood for transfusions, as area hospitals were overwhelmed with victims.

“There are aftershocks and great destruction, and it is certain that there will be great needs in such circumstances, especially the rescue operation and medical assistance, which may exceed Morocco’s ability to bear the horror of the event,” Bagadi said.

On Saturday, Morocco declared three days of national mourning in an announcement from the royal palace, after King Mohamed VI chaired a meeting to discuss the disaster.

“Three days of national mourning have been decided, with flags to fly at half-mast on all public buildings,” read a statement published by the official MAP news agency.

Responding to the earthquake could take months, if not years, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies warned Saturday.

“We are mobilizing now to support the Moroccan Red Crescent,” said Hossam Elsharkawi, the federation’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa. “We are looking at many months if not years of response.”

The USGS said the quake was unusually strong for that part of Morocco.

“Earthquakes of this size in the region are uncommon, but not unexpected. Since 1900, there have been no earthquakes M6 (magnitude 6) and larger within 500 kilometers of this earthquake, and only nine M5 (magnitude 5) and larger earthquakes,” the USGS said in a statement.

Casablanca-based sports journalist Abdeslam Chamakh described a horror scene following the tremor.

“It was 11 o’clock at night. I was sitting at home, reading a sports magazine. I felt a slight shaking, followed by a strange sound, as if there were something huge trying to enter the house. At first, I did not pay any attention to the matter, but in a fleeting moment, the walls of the house began to shake,” he said.

“I then realized that it was a strong earthquake. I ran from the room with my brother and headed outside, where I found a group of residents who had left their homes in fear for their lives.”

Chamakh told The Media Line that the earthquake shocked the entire country, leaving many people scared to return home.

“Everyone is terrified in Morocco. It was a strong and sudden earthquake, the likes of which we have never seen in Morocco,” he said. “In fact, everyone is afraid of new setbacks that will undermine the efforts of the authorities. The situation is very difficult, and Morocco needs the support and cohesion of all living forces to overcome the repercussions of the earthquake.”

He said that one of the biggest challenges facing the government is the desolate mountainous area in which the earthquake occurred.

“It is known that the Al Haouz region belongs to the High Atlas Mountain range, which is known for its isolation, and in order to reach the victims it takes a long time,” Chamakh said. “The authorities are in a race against time to save what can be saved, in addition to other factors associated with notifications and poor connectivity.”

Neighboring Algeria, which broke off ties with Morocco in September 2021 after escalating tensions between the two countries around the Western Sahara conflict, said it would open its airspace for humanitarian and medical flights.

Algerian authorities “have decided to open the airspace to flights transporting humanitarian aid and injured” from the quake, the president’s office said in a statement.

Despite the rivalry between the two, Algerian authorities are “fully prepared to provide humanitarian aid and mobilize all material and human resources in solidarity with the brotherly Moroccan people upon request from the Kingdom of Morocco,” the statement continued.

In an earlier statement, the Algerian foreign ministry offered the nation’s “sincere condolences to the brotherly Moroccan people for the victims of the earthquake.”

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