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Central Morocco Devastated by Rare, Powerful Earthquake

The minaret of a mosque stands behind damaged or destroyed houses following an earthquake in Moulay Brahim, Al-Haouz province in Morocco. Photo: Fadel Senna/AFP via Getty Images

More than a thousand people are dead in central Morocco after a magnitude-6.8 earthquake struck late Friday night — and the death toll is expected to rise. The tremor was the most powerful earthquake to strike the North African country in 123 years, and the deadliest in the world since a series of devastating quakes killed nearly 60,000 people in Turkey and Syria in February.

The epicenter of Friday’s quake was in the High Atlas Mountains roughly 50 miles southwest of Marrakech. Search and rescue workers struggled on Saturday to reach the the remote, rural mountain villages near the epicenter that were hardest hit, and where the majority of deaths have been reported thus far.

Numerous survivors in mountain villages have described frantic dashes to escape their houses just before they collapsed, trapping or killing family members left inside. Countless Moroccans slept outside on Friday night out of fear of aftershocks. Morocco’s military has mobilized to assist with the recovery efforts, but mountain roads to some heavily damaged areas remained blocked on Saturday.

Reports indicate that multiple communities were largely leveled by the quake, which struck at 11:11 p.m. Big earthquakes are particularly dangerous in the overnight hours, when most people are asleep in their homes and less able to get outside quickly when the shaking starts. In this case, the quake was shallow, and of a magnitude which is exceedingly rare in central Morocco. The region affected by the quake is home to roughly 1.8 million people, and parts of Marrakech have a higher population density than Manhattan, according to the New York Times.

The quake caused significant damage and partial building collapses in the historic city, particularly in the its old city center, where some of the city’s famous 12th-century red walls fell, and the Koutoubia Mosque was damaged — but remained standing.

Powerful earthquakes are rare but extremely destructive in Morocco, where most buildings are not constructed to withstand such seismic events. The last big quake to strike the country, a M6.3 tremor which hit the port city of Al Hoceima in 2004, killed more than 600 people. The M5.8 earthquake which struck near the western city of Agadir in 1960 killed at least 12,000 people — the deadliest in the country’s history.

Central Morocco Devastated by Rare, Powerful Earthquake