Just Back From

Reflections on the Morocco Earthquake

Indagare COO Eliza Harris was in the Atlas Mountains outside of Marrakech when last month’s devastating earthquake struck the region, killing nearly 3,000 people and forever altering the lives of thousands more. Here, she reflects on the quake and its aftermath—as well as the communities it touched and the travel industry’s responsibility to them.

On September 9, when the 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck Morocco at 11:11 pm, I was in bed at the Olinto Atlas Mountain Retreat, just 50 miles from the epicenter, staying by myself. The violence was sudden and intense, like a car crash. Lurching and rolling of brick and concrete; rapid, cacophonous banging of stone, like a jackhammer; shattering of glass. It felt as if the brick building was being lifted and brutally shaken back and forth, the way a dog would a toy. There was the cognitive dissonance of solid things like concrete not seeming solid. The power went out and the room was black but seemed intact. I used my iPhone as a flashlight and got on my hands and knees to pick up the glass shards so I wouldn’t step on them in my bare feet. A few minutes later, there was a knock on my door. Two staffers had come to check on me and tell me to leave my room and come outside with the other guests. I had been inside directly after the quake, but those who had gone out said they heard terrible wails and screams from the Berber village down the hill. We later learned it had sustained massive loss of life, an unspeakable tragedy.

Once we were all outside, there was a flurry of activity as the staff, most of them Berbers from local villages, collected guests and escorted us to the pool area where we could all - staff and guests alike - spend the night safely outside on the lounge chairs and in the garden. Jose Abete, one of the owners, accompanied by the managers, checked in with people one by one, bringing water to everyone, comforting the terrified. In the chaos, we felt so protected. Their presence was constant. So many of these same staffers would later learn that they had lost friends and family members, but we didn’t know that then, only that the Berber hospitality and caregiving was shining as bright as the stars in the black sky that night and wrapping us all in warmth. A few days later, my Berber waiter at lunch explained it like this: “The Berbers are maybe the best people in the world, with the biggest hearts. They are so poor but the valuable things they all have.”

The next day, we awoke with the dawn to soft, sparkling sunlight painting the mountains and reflecting in the stillness of the pool. I was struck with the dissonance of such serenity and harmony amid what we knew would be the horror of a humanitarian catastrophe, the vast scope of which we did not yet grasp. My driver, Said, a Berber, came to collect me and we drove silently down the switchbacks as convoys of supply vehicles and ambulances, sirens on, headed the other way towards the villages. We passed houses and buildings with big holes in their sides, like an ice cream scoop had carved out a chunk, and sections of the road blocked off by rock slides.

Just the day before, Said had been joyfully telling me about life in his village, which is a seven-hour trek by foot and mule from Marrakech. He had told me about the walnut trees and spring apple blossoms, about the annual rose festival by the river and his family compound with six cottages sharing a single kitchen. He told me his sister was his best friend and they still spoke for an hour every day. Thankfully, he had been able to reach his family by WhatsApp and confirm they were alive. Now we sat in silence, both of us crying and trying to hold ourselves together. We had felt several aftershocks and while none of them were significant, they left us with dread and uncertainty.

I arrived back to Marrakech to find it in much better shape than the mountains. The damage was mostly concentrated in the older, more rickety buildings in the medina and much of the city was operating as normal, with only minor cosmetic damage, like broken pots in the garden. I was staying at the Four Seasons, which was in impeccable condition, and I felt completely safe. In the days that followed, my phone blew up with texts and emails of people concerned for my safety begging me to come home. I saw that the news media had painted a picture of Marrakech as if it were a war zone, which was so far off what I could see.

I had come to Marrakech for the PURE Life Experiences travel conference, which was canceled, and most of the attendees immediately left. As I spoke to the locals, however, the consensus was they wanted us to stay. The local economy is heavily tied to tourism and I saw how all the cancellations were causing them to worry about job loss and the ripple effects of economic hardship adding to their pain. They said they had finally come back after Covid and they didn’t think they could take another lost tourist season. “We were going to have the richest year and everything changes in five seconds,” one said to me. “The earthquake is over but we still have the shock inside.” They asked us to take pictures and show people back home that Marrakech was still magnificent and ready for travelers.

There was a contingent of people from the travel conference who stayed behind and we were able to have profound and moving conversations with the locals. People connected in a different way. Every interaction with anyone began with, “How is your family? Is everyone okay?” and led to much longer, more emotional conversations than we would have had under normal circumstances. One colleague from the conference told me he went into a rug store and the owner burst into tears and said he was the first customer after the earthquake; he was so relieved and grateful to have business again. We began to see that we could make a small but meaningful contribution by being there to spend money, eat at the restaurants and show the locals some of the love and solidarity they had shown us in the midst of the crisis. The PURE travel conference turned a previously planned meet up into a rescue benefit that raised more than $100,000, as well as donating the food from their planned parties to the rescue efforts.

The last day before I left, I asked one of the Four Seasons employees what he wanted me to convey to Americans. “Maybe you mention the generosity and hospitality of Moroccans,” he said. “Maybe you mention the beauty and history of Marrakech. Maybe you mention that the Berbers were the first Moroccans and welcomed the Arabs in.” Please look at my photos and see that the city is still glorious and ready for travelers.

When I reflect back on my week in Marrakech, the fear I felt recedes and what I am left remembering is the patient and consistent love and care that was shown to me in the most brutal and uncertain conditions. I feel so much more connected to the Moroccan community and grateful that, amid the devastation and heartbreak, I got to witness such transcendent grace. Prayers for the Berbers, the best people indeed.

How to Help

There are many organizations, including major international NGOs providing critical help, like Care.org, Doctors without Borders, International Red Cross and UNICEF. Another we love: Education For All, a Morocco-based non-profit, which supports the education of young Berber women. Very few children, especially girls, from the mountain regions are able to continue their studies beyond primary school, mostly because the schools are miles away. Education For All builds and runs boarding houses for young women aged 12-18, providing food and lodging, with computer access and tutoring help. They are committed to helping these girls and their families through this crisis, along with rebuilding.

Another way: the overwhelming message from our partners on the ground is to continue to visit. When travelers cancel, they take their tourism dollars with them, at a moment when Moroccans dearly need the income.

Published onOctober 5, 2023

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