|Image Source: IT
A severe 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck Morocco on Friday night, September 8, causing widespread damage and killing nearly 300 people. The powerful tremor was centered in the mountainous High Atlas region, 44 miles from the popular tourist destination of Marrakech. It is reported to be the strongest earthquake in the area in over 100 years.
Thousands were forced to evacuate damaged homes and spend the night outdoors amid the threat of dangerous aftershocks. Buildings were flattened in multiple villages near the quake’s epicenter, which was unusually intense for the region according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS).
Widespread Damage Across Mountain Villages Near Epicenter
The earthquake originated 18.5 km below ground — a relatively shallow depth — at around 11 pm local time on Friday. Its epicenter was located 72 km southwest of Marrakech in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains.
Hardest hit were remote villages across the mountainous area near the quake’s center. State-run Al-Aoula television showed multiple collapsed buildings in these rural communities, where many structures are vulnerable to intense seismic shaking.
Morocco’s Interior Ministry confirmed at least 296 fatalities and over 150 injuries as of Saturday morning, mostly in the mountains. The village of Asni suffered especially heavy damage, based on reports.
“Our neighbors are under the rubble and people are working hard to rescue them using available means in the village,” said resident Montasir Itri.
The Royal Moroccan Armed Forces cautioned about ongoing risks from potential aftershocks across the region. Thousands evacuated damaged homes to stay in open areas amid the threat of buildings collapsing further.
Marrakech Old City Sustains Damage
While the worst destruction occurred in outlying areas, Morocco’s popular tourist destination of Marrakech also sustained damage from the powerful quake. The old city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, contains many historic buildings constructed with red sandstone.
Some facades and walls of the medieval ramparts surrounding the old city were damaged, along with a number of other structures. Footage showed debris being cleared by hand as the area awaited heavy equipment for larger operations.
Part of the appeal of the 1,000 year-old imperial city derives from its intact architecture and monuments from centuries past. But many homes in the tightly packed old quarter sustained damage, residents reported. The threat of aftershocks kept locals outside despite cold nighttime temperatures.
Worst Earthquake in Over a Century for Region
The 6.8 magnitude earthquake was unusually intense for this part of Morocco, according to USGS. No quakes above magnitude 6.0 have struck within 500 km over the past century. Only nine magnitude 5.0 or higher tremors hit this portion of North Africa during that period.
The combination of magnitude, shallow depth, and proximity to populated areas contributed to the substantial damage. Seismic activity of this scale was not unexpected, however, given Morocco’s location on the boundary between the African and Eurasian tectonic plates.
USGS warned that significant damage was likely from the rare High Atlas Mountain quake. Many structures in rural villages and even some in cities like Marrakech are not designed to withstand heavy shaking. Aftershocks continue to pose risks of buildings collapsing further.
Widespread Impacts Felt in Major Cities
Beyond the epicenter, shaking extended to major Moroccan population centers much farther away from the seismic event. The capital Rabat, 350 km north of the Atlas Mountains, experienced tremors along with other northern cities.
In Marrakech, 170 km east of the quake’s center, residents described significant impacts. “The earth shook for about 20 seconds. Doors opened and shut by themselves as I rushed downstairs from the second floor,” said teacher Hamid Afkar.
Panic erupted in the city known as the “Red City” for its pink-hued architecture. Locals reported ambulances descending on the old town quarter. The area’s famous marketplaces and imperial gardens will require inspections for any hidden damage.
Morocco is no stranger to seismic activity given its plate tectonic boundaries. But a quake of this magnitude directly affecting major population centers is rare. The full extent of injuries, fatalities, and infrastructure damage may still be unfolding across remote mountain villages.
Relief Efforts Underway, Tourist Sites Likely Affected
By Saturday, relief efforts were accelerating with increased light and mobility. But overnight darkness, remote areas cut off from access, and the scale of damage complicated initial emergency response. Aftershocks and instability of compromised structures continue hampering rescue operations.
As day broke on Saturday, officials began assessing economic impacts and issues like water access that often arise after major natural disasters. The area’s significant tourism industry is also likely to be affected.
In addition to the UNESCO Heritage Site old town, Marrakech is home to historic mosques, palaces, and souks that attract millions of foreign visitors annually. The earthquake struck just before the busy autumn tourist season kicked off.
Morocco’s deadliest quake in over a decade will require immense recovery efforts. But the nation has proved resilient against past seismic events. Still, this High Atlas mountain temblor near major population centers will pose a new challenge for the region in the days ahead.