Morocco’s biggest earthquake in over 120 years struck south of Marrakech on Friday night, killing almost 300 people and leaving over 150 injured.
The earthquake measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale struck Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, causing tremors as far away as Portugal.
Morocco’s Interior Ministry said that at least 296 people had died in the provinces near the quake, with another 153 injured. The epicenter was 40 miles south of Marrakech.
The ministry wrote that most damage occurred outside of cities and towns, and the United States Geological Survey warned that the death toll was likely to rise significantly, because rural buildings were not built to sustain such earthquakes.
Moroccans posted videos showing buildings reduced to rubble and dust, and parts of the famous red walls that surround the old city in Marrakech, a UNESCO World Heritage site, damaged.
Tourists and others posted videos of people screaming and evacuating restaurants in the city as throbbing club music played.
At least 296 people have died in Morocco near the quake with another 153 injured
Tourists and others posted videos of people screaming and evacuating restaurants in the city as throbbing club music played
Reports on damage and any casualties often take time to filter in after many earthquakes, particularly those that hit in the middle of the night.
Rather than return to concrete buildings, men, women and children stayed out in the streets worried about aftershocks and other reverberations that could cause their homes to sway.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake had a preliminary magnitude of 6.8 when it hit just after 10pm, with shaking that lasted several seconds.
Morocco’s National Seismic Monitoring and Alert Network measured it at 7 on the Richter scale.
The U.S. agency reported a magnitude-4.9 aftershock hit 19 minutes later.
Variations in early measurements are common, although either reading would be Morocco’s strongest in years.
Though earthquakes are relatively rare in North Africa, a magnitude 5.8 tremor struck near Agadir and caused thousands of deaths in 1960.
‘Earthquakes of this size in the region are uncommon, but not unexpected,’ said the USGS.
‘Since 1900, there have been no earthquakes M6 (magnitude 6) and larger within 500 km of this earthquake, and only 9 M5 (magnitude 5) and larger earthquakes.’
The USGS predicted that ‘significant damage is likely and the disaster is potentially widespread’, noting that many people in the area reside in structures that are ‘highly vulnerable to earthquake shaking’.
Moroccans posted videos showing buildings reduced to rubble and dust after the earthquake
People gather on a street in Casablanca, following a powerful earthquake in Morocco
The epicenter of Friday’s tremor was high in the Atlas Mountains roughly 70 kilometers (43.5 miles) south of Marrakech. It was also near Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa and Oukaimeden, a popular Moroccan ski resort.
The USGS said the epicenter was 18 kilometers (11 miles) below the Earth’s surface, while Morocco’s seismic agency put it at 8 kilometers (5 miles) down.
The quake was felt as far away as Portugal and Algeria, according to the Portuguese Institute for Sea and Atmosphere and Algeria’s Civil Defense agency, which oversees emergency response.
‘We felt a very violent tremor, and I realized it was an earthquake,’ said Abdelhak El Amrani, a 33-year-old in Marrakesh, speaking to AFP by telephone.
‘I could see buildings moving. We don’t necessarily have the reflexes for this type of situation.
‘Then I went outside and there were a lot of people there. People were all in shock and panic. The children were crying and the parents were distraught.’
He said the power and telephone networks went out for 10 minutes, but then returned.
He said everyone was staying in the open air, for fear of aftershocks.
Fayssal Badour, another Marrakesh resident, told AFP he was driving when the earthquake hit.
‘I stopped and realised what a disaster it was. It was very serious, as if a river had burst its banks. The screaming and crying was unbearable,’ he said.
Hospitals in Marrakesh reportedly saw a ‘massive influx’ of injured people.
In the town of Al-Haouz, near the epicente of the quake, a family was trapped in the rubble after their house collapsed, local media reported.
The earthquake was also felt in the coastal cities of Rabat, the capital; in Casablanca, the largest city in the country, and the tourist surfer town of Essaouira.
‘There’s not too much damage, more panic,’ said one Essaouira resident.
‘We heard screams at the time of the tremor.
‘People are in the squares, in the cafes, preferring to sleep outside. Pieces of facades have fallen.’