Morocco Earthquake Rescue Efforts Enter 4th Day as Toll Surpasses 2,900

Hopes were fading of finding survivors in the rubble of a powerful earthquake that struck Morocco as rescue efforts stretched into a fourth day on Tuesday, with the death toll surpassing 2,900.

The quake on Friday night, with a magnitude of at least 6.8, was centered in the High Atlas Mountains not far from the major city of Marrakesh. It was the most powerful to strike that area in at least a century, flattening fragile mud brick houses in the poor, rural villages that were the hardest hit.

Morocco’s government has drawn some criticism for what has been seen as a sluggish response and a seeming reluctance to accept a deluge of offers to send in expert international teams and aid. But a government spokesman pushed back against that criticism late on Sunday, saying the authorities “were working to intervene quickly, effectively and successfully.”

King Mohammad VI, who makes decisions on all the most important matters of state in Morocco, and other authorities have released little information since the earthquake struck, updating casualty figures infrequently and making few public statements.

Ordinary Moroccans, many of them frustrated at the government’s response, have begun their own makeshift relief efforts to send donated aid. On Tuesday morning, the roads winding through the Atlas Mountains remained largely empty of rescue crews, but civilian vehicles loaded with water, food and blankets sped toward the devastation.

In another stricken area of southern Morocco around the city of Taroudant, cars and trucks packed with supplies prepared to begin the ascent into the mountains from a gas station. The impromptu aid convoy has been going nonstop since Saturday, residents said.

“People from all over Morocco have come to help,” said Said Boukhlik, a local resident.

Farther north, the roads outside of Marrakesh are now dotted with hastily built tent cities housing people displaced by the quake. In Marrakesh itself, many are still sleeping in parking lots next to their cars or on the grass along the roadside, either because their homes were damaged or because they were afraid of aftershocks.

“The streets have collapsed,” said Erez Gollan, an Israeli paramedic with the relief group United Hatzalah, who was surveying the damage in the mountainous region southeast of Marrakesh that was hard-hit. “Buildings of clay and stone have been wiped out, people are living in the streets — these are sights that are difficult to comprehend,” he added.

The Atlas Mountain town of Ouirgane was a hive of activity on Tuesday, with military trucks and ambulances crowding the roads, excavators working at the rubble of several houses and police whistles sounding every few minutes.

White tents had sprung up near the road, courtesy of a film production company that had extra. A mobile clinic, one of six the Ministry of Health had set up across the earthquake zone, was treating patients, and four more were to be set up. Doctors at the clinic said the military was using helicopters to fly more doctors into remote hamlets.

Dr. Marwane Bouhabr said the clinic in Ouirgane had seen about 600 patients since opening on Saturday, sending the most severe cases to the nearest hospital. People came in with trauma, fractures and deep gashes they had sustained in the earthquake and when they helped rescue others, but also with infections from living in the open, among corpses and stray dogs. Chronic patients needed their medication. A woman who had lost her entire family had come to the clinic suffering from a nervous breakdown on Tuesday.

“It’s hard, especially the emotional side of it, because we see patients who say they lost three kids or other relatives,” Dr. Bouhabr said as two SUV ambulances raced up. “I just wish I could have been here a little bit earlier. When you’re in the rubble, surviving is a matter of minutes, not of hours.”

Most people being pulled from the debris have already died, he said, though he also saw some miraculous rescues. Some who made it out alive later asphyxiated on the dust they had breathed in while trapped and died because there were no medics to give them oxygen in time, he said.

The needs of the living were becoming more urgent by the day: sturdier, warmer shelters, hot food and places to wash. Six families were sharing a single large tent across the road from their former neighborhood, where several dozen people had died. The women and children slept inside at night, the men wherever they could — in cars, in the back of a motorcycle-powered cart. It was chillier at night, and any rain that might come would turn the entire encampment to mud.

Though the residents were grateful for donated food like canned tuna and cheese, they hoped for fresh vegetables and fruit and items they could cook themselves, said Abdel Ali Ait Mbarek, 21, whose family was staying in the tent.

All but a few people in the village were missing their identity papers and other valuables, since the houses were too dangerous to enter. Most were focusing on getting through the day. “We don’t even know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” Mr. Ait Mbarek said.

But many villages and survivors remain beyond the reach of rescue teams. Emergency workers have faced steep terrain, with roads glutted with rubble and torn up by the quake. On Tuesday, the Moroccan military published footage of a Chinook helicopter dropping aid packets in isolated areas.

“A few more relief teams have begun arriving, but they haven’t reached the highest villages,” Mr. Gollan said.

Mr. Gollan said the window of time to save those trapped under the rubble was rapidly dwindling. Others dwelling in the improvised tent camps were at risk of disease and heat exposure, he warned.

The death toll reached at least 2,901 on Tuesday, with more than 5,530 injured, according to the Moroccan interior ministry. The toll is expected to rise further as residents and relief workers dig through the rubble. The bulk of the deaths were concentrated in the mountainous, rural region of Al Haouz just southeast of Marrakesh.

About 300,000 people were affected by the quake, according to the United Nations. The authorities have urged caution in the coming days as aftershocks, including a 4.2 magnitude tremor on Sunday, continue to ripple through the area.

Aid workers on Tuesday carried on digging out victims from under the ruins of towns nearly wiped out by the disaster. Some, including British and Spanish aid workers, used rescue dogs trained to sniff out survivors trapped under the rubble.

As of Tuesday, some governments and aid groups said they were still waiting for Morocco to give them permission to enter the country, even as rural hospitals were overwhelmed.

Survivors, many living in the far-flung towns high up in the Atlas Mountains, said running water, cellular service and stable electricity remained scarce. Many said they had waited fruitlessly for days for government aid workers to reach the disaster zone.

The relief efforts are a race against the clock. Experts say the first three days after a deadly earthquake are a critical window for rescuing survivors. And dozens of countries, including the United States, were quick to offer aid after the quake.

But Morocco has officially accepted assistance only from Britain, Spain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, according to the interior ministry, although some teams operated by nonprofits like Doctors Without Borders have entered the country.

Governments are sometimes reluctant to accept too much help for fear it cannot be coordinated effectively, said Mark Lowcock, who served as the top relief official for the United Nations from 2017 to 2021. Governments are also sometimes unwilling to accept help because it could signal to their own populations that they can’t cope, he added.

“Search and rescue can save lives in the first few days, and there are occasional miraculous examples of people surviving under collapsed buildings for a week or a bit or more,” Mr. Lowcock said, adding that “speed is of the essence.”

Aida Alami contributed reporting from Ouirgane, Morocco, and Matthew Mpoke Bigg from London.