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More than 2,100 dead in Morocco earthquake; US ‘ready to go’, Blinken says

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Picture: Sima Diab/The Washington Post/Taken September 10, 2023 – A woman walks through the rubble of the Jewish quarter of Amizmiz, Morocco, on Sunday, two days after the area was hit by a strong earthquake.

By Claire Parker, Ben Brasch, Jennifer Hassan, Kelly Kasulis Cho, Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff and Louisa Loveluck

AMIZMIZ, Morocco – As buildings continue to crumble, rescuers are racing to find survivors of the 6.8-magnitude earthquake that has killed at least 2,100 people and injured another 2,400. The death toll is expected to rise significantly from the quake, which struck western Morocco late Friday.

President Biden expressed his condolences and said his administration is “working expeditiously to ensure American citizens in Morocco are safe [and is] standing ready to provide any necessary assistance to the Moroccan people”. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday morning on CNN’s “State of the Union” that “we await word from the Moroccan government to find out how we can help, where we can help, but we’re ready to go”. As of Sunday, King Mohammed VI had not publicly requested international assistance or directly addressed the nation.

Latest on the devastating earthquake in Morocco

This is the strongest earthquake to hit the area in more than a century, the US Geological Survey (USGS) said in a preliminary report. Earthquakes of this size there are “uncommon but not unexpected”, it said, adding that there had been none with a magnitude higher than six since 1900.

The earthquake struck about 47 miles southeast of Marrakesh, at a depth of about 11 miles (18.5 kilometres), putting it in the category of a shallow earthquake, which tend to be more destructive.

More than 300,000 people in Marrakesh and its outskirts have been affected by the disaster, according to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Players from Morocco’s national soccer team gave blood after health officials appealed for donations to help those injured in the quake, the team said in a social media post that included a video of the players at a health facility.

The vastness of the quake zone and the complexity of the terrain is making rescue efforts difficult, according to Caroline Holt, the director of disaster, climate and crises for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Some affected areas were reachable only by helicopter, she said, adding that heavy machinery that is needed to clear rubble may be difficult to transport through such mountainous terrain.

The quake’s epicentre was in al-Haouz province, a mountainous and rural area where rescue workers have struggled to get past fallen debris and through difficult terrain to reach victims. More than 1,000 people had died there, according to the Interior Ministry.

Picture: Sima Diab/The Washington Post/Taken September 10, 2023 – A family walks in the rubble to check on their home in the Jewish quarter of Amizmiz on Sunday.

From the ground

Buildings are crumbling more than a day after the earthquake. In one ruined home in the town of Amizmiz, traces of its former inhabitants could be glimpsed in the debris: velveteen blankets, suitcases, rugs, a sagging mattress buckling under the weight of what was once the second-floor ceiling. Most of the residents of this town have sought higher ground, where there are stretches of flat, dry land on which to pitch tents.

“I could not understand what was happening at first. I couldn’t do a single thing. I just froze in my place,” said Faiz Yassine, who was at his home with his family in Moulay Brahim, a village in al-Haouz, when the quake struck. They tried to escape their unit in a four-storey block of flats. Stuck, they watched their walls crack. The 32-year-old and his family were spared from physical injuries. He said about 30 people in his neighbourhood died, with an untold number of others missing. Despite living in a newer building, Yassine said the quake destroyed their flat.

“No one has come to help us,” said Rachid Bouaddi, a Casablanca resident who returned to his hometown of Adassil in Chichaoua province. He said nine people have died in the town, including a child. Rescue efforts are concentrated in harder-hit areas nearby. He described two nights of hard physical labour as local residents tried to pull survivors out from under the rubble. But with no water, food or electricity, he said, fatigue and overwhelming loss have begun to set in.

In a large Carrefour grocery store in Marrakesh, some shoppers stocked up on nonperishable food items – sausage, powdered milk and bottles of water – to drive to the mountains to distribute to residents in the hardest-hit villages.

In Marrakesh, people described desperate evacuations as walls crumbled around them. Videos on social media showed Marrakesh’s largest minaret swaying as people below ran away. Elsewhere in the city, residents shielded their mouths from the dusty air and reached out to each other for support as they navigated narrow alleyways in near-darkness.

About 19.3 million people were exposed to the earthquake, according to USGS data released Saturday morning. Cellphone networks in the worst-affected areas had stopped working, leaving family members across the country and around the world waiting anxiously for news.

Global impact

The United States is ready to provide assistance, Biden said. In general, governments can request or accept assistance in any formal or informal way, such as diplomatic notes, emails or phone calls. US assistance and support can be deployed immediately, such as with the assessment team from United States Agency for International Development now in Morocco or with other previous disasters.

The Qatari International Search and Rescue Group is heading to Morocco to assist with recovery operations, the organization said in a statement Sunday, adding that the group would be delivering urgent humanitarian aid to those affected by the quake.

Several nations and groups offered assistance for Morocco – including France, the United Kingdom, Germany, India, China, Austria and earthquake-ravaged Turkey. Algeria also offered to reopen its airspace to help with aid and medical evacuations, the Associated Press reported. Algeria closed its airspace to Morocco in 2021, when the two countries severed diplomatic ties over issues including a long-standing dispute over Western Sahara.

The US Embassy in Rabat warned that hospitals in Marrakesh and other major cities “have limited capacity,” and it said local hospitals in the worst-affected areas “may become strained.”

Brasch and Rosenzweig-Ziff reported from Washington, Hassan and Loveluck from London and Kasulis Cho from Seoul, and Parker is the Cairo bureau chief for The Washington Post.

This article was first published in The Washington Post