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Rescuers scramble to find survivors in Morocco after powerful earthquake kills more than 2,000

Posted at 5:22 PM, Sep 10, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-10 17:22:59-04

Moulay Brahim (CNN) — Rescuers in Morocco are battling to find survivors from Friday’s powerful earthquake, with more than 2,000 people killed and remote villages near the epicenter left in ruins.

In the hard-hit central village of Moulay Brahim, south of Marrakech in the Atlas Mountains, CNN found a family living in a makeshift camp on a soccer field, with authorities telling them it could be a week before they can go home. Firefighters are leading rescue efforts but some buildings are too dangerous to enter.

The building where Mina Bakenziz lived was almost entirely destroyed. “The people came and pulled me out,” she said. “Nothing fell on me, I was so lucky.”

There have been offers of help from around the world but it is not clear how much aid is reaching those in need. The UN on Saturday said it offered support but Morocco was handling the response itself.

The 6.8-magnitude quake struck late on Friday. It was also the strongest to hit the region around the ancient city of Marrakech in a century, according to the US Geological Survey.

The death toll climbed to 2,122 on Sunday afternoon, state-run broadcaster 2M said, with a further 2,421 people injured.

The number of fatalities is expected to rise further as rescuers dig through the rubble of collapsed houses in remote areas of the Atlas Mountains.

In Marrakech, the largest city near the center of the quake and a major tourist draw, many families spent Saturday night staying out in the open, as authorities warned residents to pay close attention to aftershocks.

Hatimi, 53, slept in a central Marrakech park with her entire family, including little children. She said it got cold at night, so they stayed together. “Everybody was outside. All of the neighbors, everyone. We don’t want to go inside, everyone is scared, the shaking was so strong,” she told CNN.

People stayed away from the damaged buildings in the city’s tightly-packed medieval-era center as well as the surrounding red earth walls, where parts have crumbled.

In the Oliveraie Park in central Marrakech, hundreds of people, including children and the elderly, slept on blankets and makeshift mattresses. Families huddled together, trying to get some rest after the shock and panic from the night before.

Some brought bags of clothes and food, preparing for a possible longer stay away from their homes.

Morocco’s King Mohammed VI has issued instructions to set up a commission for relief services to provide care, housing and foods for those affected. He also ordered mosques nationwide to hold funeral prayers, known as ‘Janazah’ prayers, at noon on Sunday for those killed.

Flags around the city are flying at half-mast to mark three days of national mourning announced by the monarchy.

In Marrakech’s airport, dozens of tourists slept on the floor in the main terminal, waiting to catch a flight out. Flights in and out of the tourism hub have been operating mostly as normal.

‘My house is gone’

Scenes of destruction and despair have also played out in villages dotting the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, where the quake was centered.

These remote areas had the highest number of fatalities, with homes made from mud bricks crumbling onto residents and boulders blocking road for rescue teams to arrive.

Aerial footage showed villages perching on slopes flattened, reduced to piles of rubble in the aftermath of the quake.

Fatima, 50, told CNN her house in the mountain village of Asni had been destroyed.

“I barely got the chance to grab the kids and run out before I saw my house collapsing in front of my eyes. The neighbor’s house has also collapsed and there are two dead people under the rubble,” she said.

Mohammed, 50, from the nearby town of Ouirgane, lost four family members in the quake.

“I managed to get out safely with my two children but lost the rest. My house is gone,” he said.

Rescue operations there are ongoing.

“We are out in the streets with authorities as they try to pull the dead from the rubble. Many many people were transported to hospital in front of me. We are hoping for miracles from the rubble,” Mohammed said.

In the small town of Moulay Brahim, footage released by Reuters showed villagers digging through the rubble to pull out bodies.

Rescuers are racing against time. The first 72 hours after a quake are the most critical period for finding survivors, as the condition of people trapped and injured can quickly deteriorate beyond that window.

“They call it the ‘golden period’ because if you’re going to get people out from under the rubble, that’s the time to do it,” said Joe English, a spokesperson for the UN’s Children Fund, UNICEF.

“These towns and villages, they’re remote, they’re hard to reach…International support and solidarity is absolutely critical,” he added.

The World Health Organization said more than 300,000 people had been affected by the powerful tremors in Marrakech and surrounding areas.

Not since 2004 has the country seen a comparable disaster, when a 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck the port city of Al Hoceima, claiming around 630 lives.

Morocco’s worst earthquake of modern times was in 1960 near the western city of Agadir which killed at least 12,000 people.