As rubble and fallen stone blocked roads to Moroccan villages hardest hit by an earthquake, many residents on Sunday began burying their dead and scavenging for scarce supplies as they waited for government aid.
That wait can be long.
The most powerful earthquake to hit the region in a century has spared neither city apartments nor those living in the mud houses of the High Atlas Mountains, but many in Morocco’s remote and rugged areas have been left almost completely to fend for themselves. .
Survivors, faced with widespread electricity and telephone outages, said they were running low on food and water. Some bodies were buried before they could be washed, as Islamic rituals require.
More than 2,100 people were killed and more than 2,400 were injured in Friday evening’s earthquake, the magnitude of which was estimated at 6.8, Moroccan state television reported on Sunday.
In a devastated city in southern Morocco, Amizmiz, a woman’s cry suddenly filled the air. After rushing to town, she had just learned that her two brothers were dead, her cousin Lacher Anflouss, 37, explained.
“Many people initially react calmly because they still haven’t processed it,” said Mr. Anflouss. “And when they finally process it…” His voice trailed off.
Moroccan state media released images of helicopters ferrying aid to remote areas, and King Mohammed VI said he had ordered the government to quickly provide shelter and rebuild homes for people in need, “especially orphans and the vulnerable.”
But the government has generally remained tight-lipped since the earthquake, releasing little information about the rescue efforts and providing only occasional updates on the casualties. Some Moroccans criticized social media as slow and uncoordinated.
In the village of Douar Tnirt in the Atlas Mountains, people sleeping outside for a third night lined up on Sunday for much-needed help, including blankets, diapers and water. But the supplies did not come from the government, which villagers said had not offered any assistance since the disaster, but from a charity in Marrakech.
Abdessamad Ait Ihia, 17, who grew up nearby, rushed back to the area on Saturday from Casablanca, where he works, to check on his family. He saw no sign of rescuers or government workers, he said.
“We just want help and people to help us, that’s all we want,” he said.
About thirty kilometers away, in another mountain village, Azgour, both electricity and telephone connections were out, making it impossible to even call for outside help. Young men who followed the screams in the dark pulled people out of the rubble themselves with their bare hands, fearing a further collapse.
“We didn’t wait for someone to start saving people’s lives,” said the village’s imam, Abdeljalil Lamghrari, 33.
With water pumping mechanisms broken by the earthquake, villagers there were forced to travel miles away to find working wells, and desperation grew.
Still, the head of a village association, Jamal Elabrki, 54, attempted optimism.
Rain is forecast for this week, he said. “Without that, we are afraid. It’s going to be really bad.”
Dozens of countries have offered help. Spain said it would send search and rescue teams, and Qatari state media reported Qatar would deploy specialized vehicles and equipment. But on Sunday, some governments and aid groups said they were still waiting for Morocco to give the green light, even as hospitals in rural areas were overwhelmed.
Arnaud Fraisse, the founder of Secouristes Sans Frontières, a group that helped rescue efforts after the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria in February, said in an interview on France’s Inter radio that Morocco had not given his organization permission to help.
President Emmanuel Macron of France said his government is in contact with Moroccan authorities and stands ready to help. “As soon as they ask, we will deploy,” he said on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in India.
Samia Errazzouki, a Moroccan-American historian of North Africa at Stanford University, said in an interview that the government’s “heavily controlled and centralized” functions hampered its disaster response. “The immediate hours of any natural disaster are the most crucial,” she said, but long hours passed before the king made a public statement.
“How many lives could have been saved?” asked Mrs. Errazzouki.
The first three days after an earthquake are sometimes called the “golden period” for rescuers, so this is a critical time for aid workers trying to rescue survivors in Morocco, says Caroline Holt, director of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Society . Associations.
But she also stressed the need to provide people with clean water and identify damaged buildings that still pose a danger. “We must ensure that we do not have a disaster within a disaster,” she said in a statement.
As night fell on Sunday, families whose homes were destroyed or unsafe prepared to sleep behind makeshift shelters made of colorful cloth and plastic sheeting, held down by rocks or in yellow tents provided by firefighters. Others worried about aftershocks and slept in the open.
In villages like Azgour, which lies between two ridges of the Atlas Mountains south of Marrakech, houses are typically built of mud bricks, a traditional construction method that makes them highly vulnerable to earthquakes and heavy rains. The earthquake left half of the houses in Azgour in ruins and the others uninhabitable.
More than 300,000 citizens in Marrakech and its suburbs were also affected by the earthquake, according to a World Health Organization report. Seventeen people have been killed in the Marrakech area, the Moroccan Interior Ministry said on Sunday. But Marrakesh and its walled old city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, appeared to have been spared heavy damage.
Some Moroccans greeted the government’s bloodless response to the disaster with resignation. Memories of a 2004 earthquake that was one of the most devastating in recent years are still fresh: the prime minister did not immediately visit the worst-hit areas because protocol dictated that he would not appear before the king.
Not that the country has a high tolerance for public outrage. Moroccan law criminalizes criticism of the king, which may help explain Moroccans’ muted response.
On Sunday it was clear that villages across the Atlas Mountains – even villages just an hour or two from the big city of Marrakesh – were receiving little or no official help. Ambulances were a rare sight, with most of the injured people pulled from the wreckage taken to Marrakech hospitals by private car or motorcycle, if they made it at all.
Jenny Gross reported from London. Anushka Patil contributed reporting from New York.