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After deadly quake, tourists and locals on uncharted ground

The famed Jemaa el-Fnaa square in the historic quarter of Marrakesh, Morocco, on Sept. 26, 2018. (Daniel Rodrigues/The New York Times)
The famed Jemaa el-Fnaa square in the historic quarter of Marrakesh, Morocco, on Sept. 26, 2018. (Daniel Rodrigues/The New York Times)

The earthquake that struck Morocco on Friday night hit near Marrakech, a popular tourist destination, sending both residents and visitors scrambling for safety.

Oussama Ait Chari, a guide who works for a tourism expedition company in Marrakech, was outside, chatting with a friend after dropping off a client at her hotel, when the tremors started, toppling street lamps.

“In the first couple of seconds, we didn’t even think about an earthquake,” he said. “We thought it was a bomb or a rocket.”

Jen Lorang, 41, a jeweler based in western Massachusetts, was in her riad when the thick bedroom walls shook and pottery crashed to the floor.

“I grew up in Seattle, and then spent 10 years in San Francisco,” Lorang said. “I’ve been preparing for the Big One my whole life, so I knew immediately.”

Morocco has suffered devastating earthquakes — memories of the 1960 quake in Agadir, which killed about 12,000 people, loom large — but they are far from common. Many were unsure how to react.

“We didn’t know if we had to stand up, to sit down, to run,” Ait Chari said. He and his friend drove outside town to sleep in a car. It felt safer there, he said.

It did not help that the old city of Marrakech, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is full of close-knit buildings, uneven cobblestone streets and intricate passageways — enchanting to visit but a poor place to shelter.

Lorang and hundreds of others found refuge in a courtyard, where some brought out rugs and blankets to sleep. Others tried desperately to call friends or family.

“People were rushing past, there were grandparents in their wheelchairs, tourists rushing to the airport,” she said. “It was very chaotic.”

Ait Chari said he was supposed to pick up more clients Sunday but was unsure flights would be maintained. Still, he was optimistic.

“I know it will be affected a little bit, but it will recover,” he said. “It’s nature.”

Tourism accounted for more than 7% of Morocco’s gross domestic product and 565,000 jobs before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Recovery may be more of a challenge than the COVID reopening. There were signs on Saturday morning of damage at cultural sites, with images of rubble on the streets of the Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main square in Marrakech’s historic center. Videos of the 12th-century city walls showed some gates partly collapsed.

Jean-Baptiste Guinet, the French owner of a boutique hotel in Taroudant, near the epicenter, said it was too early to know what would happen to his business, although no customers had canceled so far.

Many people were still in shock, he said, but there had also been “great solidarity,” as residents cleared roads.

“No one had experienced a quake in over 30 years,” he said. “We know it’s a seismic area, but it never shakes.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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