How rigid government, state neglect hobbled Morocco’s earthquake response


MARRAKESH, Morocco — From devastated mountain villages, to a shaken yet largely spared Marrakesh, survivors of last week’s 6.8-magnitude earthquake in Morocco have criticized the government’s response as too little, too late — many bodies are still trapped under rubble, and many communities are relying on local groups and volunteers for support.

The earthquake, which killed at least 2,901 people, was the worst to hit Morocco in more than a hundred years. The terrain around its epicenter — in the Atlas Mountains — is difficult to navigate, with isolated villages at dizzying elevations, accessible only by narrow, winding roads.

But analysts also attributed the sluggish and poorly coordinated disaster response to Morocco’s constitutional monarchy, in which decision-making is highly centralized and lower-level officials fear taking action without approval from the royal palace.

“This is a monarchy, and nobody wants to deal with the aftermath of showing up and saying, ‘I’ll take control of this situation,’” said Intissar Fakir, director of the North Africa and Sahel program at the Washington-based Middle East Institute think tank.

Under Morocco’s political system, ruled since 1999 by King Mohammed VI, power is concentrated in the palace in Rabat. Decision-making is top-down. The government is led by a prime minister appointed by the king.

Announcements of government initiatives at any level almost always specify they come at the king’s behest — a sign, Fakir said, of the extent to which officials worry about stepping out of line.

This deference “takes on a life of its own and becomes really how everyone operates,” she said. “And that’s what causing a lot of this bottleneck — you have everything sort of gummed up at the top, waiting for one man, one person to make a decision.”

Morocco’s Interior Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Soon after footage of the quake’s destruction began to spread across the world, a variety of countries offered aid to Morocco.

Spain was among the few to get approval from the Moroccan government to send support. A team of Spanish rescue workers began missions around the Atlas region on Monday, using dogs to try to sniff out survivors.

“We have not found anyone so far, but we will not cease,” Alberto Vásquez, from the Spanish military unit for emergencies, said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Other countries never received the green light to send aid or rescuers.

Neighbors have relied on neighbors to dig survivors out of the rubble, sharing whatever food and supplies they could. In many places, the first outside responders to show up were private organizations or citizens who had traveled from major cities to stitch wounds or hand out water.

When a team of Moroccan volunteer medics arrived in the decimated village of Talat N’Yaaqoub on Sunday, local authorities handed them jackets and they got to work treating the injured.

“We were the first to arrive there, on the extremely difficult road to navigate, with a bulldozer in front of us pushing rock as we moved,” one member of the team, Hamza Zilaf, said.

The group led the medical response in seven villages. The official Moroccan civil protection service arrived later, he said.

Some foreign organizations are on the ground, including the Spanish foundation SAMU. A team with two dogs drove from Seville and took a ferry to Morocco, where they encountered some resistance from border patrol before being allowed through, according to team member Borja González de Escalada.

Regional intelligence authorities in Marrakesh directed them to Adassil, a remote village some 70 miles to the southwest, where the team set up a command post to treat the injured and make small expeditions to harder-to-reach places in the mountains.

“We’re basically the only ones here,” González de Escalada said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “No NGOs, no rescue teams. It’s a very distant area.”

Typically, the World Health Organization is on the scene in disaster zones to coordinate. But not here.

“There’s very little coordination,” he said. “Just a few army officers are the ones organizing the aid.”

Some of the most devastated places can only be reached by helicopter, said Erin Gore, chief executive of World Central Kitchen, a front-line humanitarian organization founded by celebrity chef José Andrés. The organization deployed less than 24 hours after the quake, working directly with local chefs — rather than officials — to coordinate.

Using two light choppers, the team has been flying to isolated communities to bring hot meals and water — and to fly injured quake victims to hospitals. In some of the villages, residents had not yet received any aid, Gore said.

Other international disaster-response organizations were still stuck in Marrakesh on Tuesday, waiting for the necessary authorization from authorities to proceed.

Sometimes, Morocco’s centralized system has been helpful: Authorities were praised for their response to the coronavirus pandemic, quickly implementing mask mandates and other measures to limit the virus’s spread.

But the system is not built to respond to a major natural disaster.

“In this instance, it was very much caught on its back foot,” Fakir said. “There was no warning, there was no planning.”

In villages along the road from Marrakesh to Talat N’Yaaqoub on Monday, displaced residents who had been sleeping in tents or in open clearings complained they had not received food or medicine from state officials. A camp set up by the Moroccan civil protection service had no bathrooms.

In Adassil, about 50 residents staged a protest Sunday against local authorities who were stockpiling aid and preventing outside volunteers from reaching the villagers, according to Abdelqader Afdil of the Majdid Association for Solidarity and Development, a local group.

“It’s only the volunteers who brought blankets, food and tents with them to the town. We need doctors,” he said.

After the protest, Afdil said, officials released the aid.

The city of Marrakesh was spared the wholesale destruction seen in the mountains. On Tuesday, tourists lounged by hotel pools or walked through the subdued central market square.

In poorer neighborhoods, though, where the earthquake left cracks that ran all the way down the sides of homes, residents were still sleeping in the street.

When a Washington Post photographer visited Sidi Youssef Ben Ali, on the city’s southeastern edge, a crowd began to form when word circulated that a foreigner was there. Disappointed residents were hoping to put their names on a list for foreign aid.

“Until now, we have no idea if the government will help, and no one has come here,” said Adil Menar, 40, who had been sleeping along with his family in the open air. “You’re the first person to ask about us.”

In the first days after the disaster, the palace was mostly silent. Images of the king chairing emergency cabinet meetings were shared on social media. But he didn’t appear in public until Tuesday, when he visited earthquake victims in a hospital named after him in Marrakesh. Videos showed cheering crowds greeting Mohammed’s motorcade as it drove through the city.

The king donated blood during his visit — “a powerful gesture” that “expresses His Majesty’s complete solidarity and compassion for the victims and bereaved families,” a statement shared by state media read.

But the delay reinforced perceptions of the king’s absence from public life in recent years.

“This was a really lost opportunity for the monarchy, especially to put forward a young crown prince who the population doesn’t know all that well,” Fakir said.

On Sunday, government spokesman Mustapha Baitas hit back at criticism of the earthquake response.

“All civil and military services are working tirelessly to aid those impacted by the earthquake that hit Morocco on Friday, resulting in substantial loss of life and material damage,” he said.

But experts say long-standing neglect of rural regions and a lack of basic infrastructure compounded the disaster.

In the span of 50 years, Morocco has gone from a country that was “about 70 percent rural to one that is about 70 percent urban,” according to Driss Ksikes, director of the Rabat-based research center Economia. The focus was on building big roads and cities, he said, while “the rural areas have been discarded.”

The result is a jarring disconnect between the well-paved highways and robust services in major cities like Marrakesh, and the houses hewn from red clay on mountaintops with no cellular reception.

In these isolated regions, civil society has filled the void.

In Ighil, near the epicenter, Mohamed Ait Bouriki of the Aghras Ntifaout association said Tuesday that members of his group were stuck. The road to the village was blocked; they couldn’t get supplies in or people out.

“Some rescuers wearing military jumpsuits came to check on us yesterday night,” he said. “They brought nothing. All the children of the village have fever; the elderly are sick. They just took notes and left.”

Sima Diab in Marrakesh and Diana Durán in Bogotá, Colombia, contributed to this report.


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