A rare, powerful earthquake struck Morocco late Friday night, killing hundreds of people and damaging buildings from the historic city of Marrakech to villages in the Atlas Mountains.
Men, women and children stayed out in the streets, fearing aftershocks.
Morocco’s Interior Ministry said early Saturday that at least 296 people had died in the provinces near the quake. Additionally, 153 injured people were sent to hospitals for treatment. The ministry wrote that most damage occurred outside of cities and towns.
The head of the town of Talat N’Yaaqoub, Abderrahim Ait Daoud, told Moroccan news site 2M that several homes in towns in the Al Haouz region had partly or totally collapsed, and electricity and roads were cut off in some places.
He said authorities are working to clear roads in the province to allow passage for ambulances and aid to populations affected, but said large distances between mountain villages mean it will take time to learn the extent of the damage.
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.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake had a preliminary magnitude of 6.8 when it hit at 11:11 p.m. (2211 GMT), with shaking that lasted several seconds. The U.S. agency reported a magnitude-4.9 aftershock hit 19 minutes later.
The USGS said the epicenter was 18 kilometers below the Earth’s surface, while Morocco’s seismic agency put it at 8 kilometers down. In either case, such shallow quakes are more dangerous.
The epicenter of Friday’s tremor was high in the Atlas Mountains, roughly 70 kilometers south of Marrakech. It was also near Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa and Oukaimeden, a popular Moroccan ski resort.
Earthquakes are relatively rare in North Africa. Lahcen Mhanni, Head of the Seismic Monitoring and Warning Department at the National Institute of Geophysics, told 2M TV that the earthquake was “exceptional.”
“Mountainous regions in general do not produce earthquakes of this size,” he said. “It is the strongest earthquake recorded in the region.”
In 1960, a magnitude 5.8 tremor struck near the Moroccan city of Agadir and caused thousands of deaths.
The Agadir quake prompted changes in construction rules in Morocco, but many buildings, especially rural homes, are not built to withstand such tremors.
Friday’s 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.