Select foreign aid and rescue teams have joined desperate efforts to find any remaining survivors high in Morocco’s Atlas mountains, three days after a powerful earthquake.
Moroccan authorities said they had “responded favourably” to offers of help from visiting search and rescue teams from Spain, Qatar, Britain and the United Arab Emirates, but were yet to accept further offers of aid from other countries despite the urgent nature of the disaster.
Turkey, which experienced its own deadly earthquake in February has offered emergency response teams and aid. Its president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said it would help “with all means” if Rabat accepted the offer.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, told the G20 summit in Delhi that France stood ready to provide immediate aid, with no reply from Rabat. “Moroccan authorities know exactly what can be delivered, the nature [of what can be delivered] and the timing … We are at their disposal. We did everything we could do.… The second they request this aid, it will be deployed,” he said.
Morocco’s King Mohammed VI thanked foreign nations for their offers of help during a disaster management session with the country’s interior ministry, while the state’s news agency added that “the Moroccan authorities have carried out a precise assessment of needs on the ground, given the fact that non-coordination in such situations could be counterproductive.”
Friday’s 6.8-magnitude quake, Morocco’s deadliest in more than six decades, had its epicentre below an isolated cluster of mountainous villages 45 miles south of Marrakech, shaking infrastructure as far away as the country’s northern coast.
The interior ministry said late on Sunday night that the provisional death toll had “stabilised” at 2,122, with 2,421 injured, despite expectations that the overall death toll could rise as rescue teams reach remote villages high in the Atlas mountains.
Many such villages clustered in the peaks of Al Haouz region south of Marrakech, closer to the earthquake’s epicentre, have been worst affected. Drone footage from local television channels showed traditional mud-brick houses completely flattened.
Footage shared by the Moroccan government on social media showed soldiers frantically digging among towering piles of rubble and using dogs in the faint hope of finding any remaining survivors, as bodies shrouded in blankets were lined up nearby.
Many feared the combined difficulties of accessing remote mountain villages as well as a delayed emergency response heavily reliant on approval from the royal palace was impeding rescue efforts.
At least 300,000 people were affected by the tremors in Marrakech and the surrounding regions, according to the World Health Organisation. The quake was the deadliest in Morocco since a 1960 earthquake destroyed Agadir, killing more than 12,000 people.
Spain deployed 86 rescuers and eight search dogs to Morocco to “help in the search and rescue of survivors of the devastating earthquake suffered in our neighbouring country”, the defence ministry said in a statement.
A Qatari aid flight left from Al-Udeid airbase outside Doha on Sunday evening, according to AFP.
Omar Saadoune, a civil society activist, speaking from Casablanca, described his communications with residents of remote mountain villages in the Al Haouz region.
“The situation is catastrophic, many houses completely crumbled. As these were homes largely made of mud-bricks, when they collapsed they also buried entombed people which also makes the possibility of finding people alive more difficult. There are many dead, but it is very difficult to evaluate the number of them.”
Residents of the isolated villages high in the peaks of the Atlas mountains were dependent on aid deliveries for basic water and food, he said, a situation made more complicated by the loss of electricity resources and ongoing issues with telephone networks.
“Anyone that had any remaining phone battery left used it to demand help,” said Saadoune.
Some mountain villages such as Talat N’Yaaqoub, 60 miles south of Marrakech, which lies close to a main road from the historic city, have begun to slowly clear access but villages such as Aghbar far further south remaining completely inaccessible, he said.
Emergency services arrived on Sunday morning in Talat N’Yaaqoub to care for the wounded, more than a day after the earthquake struck.
“The inhabitants felt abandoned, they wondered what had happened. They still fear the aftershocks and have no idea what could happen now,” said Saadoune.
The earthquake wiped out entire villages across the Atlas mountain range, where villagers, civilians and members of Morocco’s armed forces frantically continued their search for survivors and the bodies of the dead.
Prof Mehrdad Sasani, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern University, said the cheaper mud-brick houses that predominated throughout the villages increased the risk of fatalities during an earthquake.
Residents and experts of the affected region have long pointed to neglect by the state, particularly a lack of basic infrastructure across Al Haouz. “These types of structure are very brittle, meaning they don’t have the capacity for flexibility and movement required during an earthquake, meaning they would crumble,” said Sasani.
In addition, he added, the clay-type material used to build homes increased the suffocation risk for inhabitants trapped under the debris, as when the homes collapsed it did not allow for any air pockets that could allow survivors to continue to breathe.
“These homes have heavy walls that carry the weight of the roofs. When these come down, it leads to a higher likelihood of casualties,” he said.
Villages including Tafeghaghte in Al Haouz, 40 miles from Marrakech, were entirely wiped out, with few buildings left standing according to reporters who visited the scene.