Lori Dengler | Libya and Morocco witness thousands of deaths in the wake of earthquake and floods – Times Standard

This image shows USGS earthquakes of magnitude 5 and larger in North Africa and the Mediterranean since 1900. Shows the location of the M6.8 Morocco earthquake on September 8 and the city of Derna, Libya, which was struck by flooding on September 10-11. (Contributed).

Nature has been cruel these past 10 days. More than 15,000 people are expected to have died in an earthquake in Morocco and catastrophic floods in Libya. Response and recovery efforts are still underway in both regions, and it will take weeks before the full extent of the impacts are known. Some estimate that more than 20,000 people died in Libya alone.

First the earthquake. On September 8, at 11:11 PM local time in Morocco, a 6.8-magnitude earthquake struck the rugged Atlas Mountain region. The quake was relatively shallow at a depth of about 11 miles below the surface. More than 4 million people felt the intense shaking of the Earth.

Unfortunately, many of the buildings in the area are made of stone and are not reinforced to withstand vibration. It is an old area. The United Nations recognizes nine sites in Morocco as World Heritage Sites. The old district of Marrakesh was only 45 miles from the epicenter. Medina and many other regions are culturally rich but fragile in the event of earthquakes. As I write, the death toll is approaching 3,000.

The numbers are scary. To most of us, Morocco seems far away and foreign. It’s natural to lump numbers and horror into the category of “very sad but has nothing to do with my life and my community.” There are a number of reasons why you might pay more than just a passing glance.

• Strong earthquakes do not always occur at plate boundaries. The Morocco earthquake was 300 miles south of the nearest plate boundary. This is central Nevada relative to the San Andreas transform boundary. While school children may learn that earthquakes occur on plate boundary lines, this is an oversimplification.

As the African plate moves north towards Europe, the pressures are enormous. The Mediterranean Sea is slowly closing, putting pressure on the Alps and the Caucasus. Morocco is not as seismically active as Italy, Greece and Turkey but it is also affected. Most Moroccan earthquakes are concentrated near the Mediterranean Sea closer to the plate interface, but not all.

Mountains are always a sign of past or ongoing stress. The Atlas Mountains were first formed in the collision of plates from continent to continent about 300 million years ago. One hundred million years later, a rift struck the area, causing extension. The situation turned again in the Neolithic and pressure became the norm again. Each phase produced new errors and, in some cases, reactivated old ones. The September 8 earthquake was a result of this.

There is no place on the planet that does not have a long geological past that could have impacts in the future. The early 19th century New Madrid earthquakes that struck Missouri and Arkansas may be linked to deeply buried faults that may date back to the opening of the Atlantic Ocean more than 200 million years ago. And yes, the entire state of Nevada is feeling the impact of the San Andreas Fault System. Bottom line? Earthquakes are most common near plate boundaries, but they can and will happen anywhere.

• Time of day/year is important. The Morocco earthquake occurred near midnight when most people were home, and many were asleep. Their stone and brick structures collapsed due to the shaking. If the earthquake had occurred during daylight hours, many residents would have been working outdoors. Nighttime earthquakes are worse in many parts of the world but they are a blessing in our region. Most of us live in buildings with wood frames, which are better able to resist vibrations. The earthquake last December showed us that sleeping in our beds is the safest place. There is no time to jump out the door where most injuries occur.

• Outside help always takes time. During the first hours or days after a major earthquake, the only people available to help are those who survived in the area. Planning ahead can improve response time, but it will never be instant. There were many factors that slowed down the Moroccan response. Some, such as damaged roads and infrastructure, could occur in the next earthquake. Other factors, such as a lack of national response planning and restrictions on international aid groups, are less likely.

There is something anyone can do to be helpful in those first hours and days before outside relief reaches you. Be part of a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). CERT volunteers, recognized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, are usually from a specific area and are trained to work together as a team.

The training takes 23 hours spread over evenings and weekends to learn safe search and rescue techniques, small fire control, first aid/CPR, and how to provide an initial case assessment to professionals when they arrive. CERT teams work closely with local government, fire, medical and public safety officials. The McKinleyville class begins online Sept. 26, and a class in Trinidad is scheduled for November. See https://www.humboldtcert.com/ for more information.

• Disasters can happen to tourists. Just because you’re on vacation, doesn’t make you safe from natural disasters. Thirty-nine Americans died in the Indian Ocean tsunami, including a McKinleyville man. Morocco is a major tourist destination and there are many popular hiking trails in the central area. Several tourist infections have been reported. No matter where you travel in the world, disasters may accompany you. Tourists should be aware of the dangers and keep a Grab and Go bag ready.

Tourism is vital to Morocco’s economy and recovery efforts. If you have upcoming travel plans to Morocco, make sure that the places you visit are open and safe. And don’t be a tourist in a disaster – avoid areas where rescue/recovery crews are working and never take selfies in front of destroyed buildings.

• Running out of buildings is not the right thing to do to save yourself in California. I’m concerned that images of collapsing buildings have triggered a “go” reaction in many people. Our buildings do not collapse in disasters. The most likely cause of injury in the California earthquake is running outside. The less you move while the ground shakes, the safer you will be. Get down on the floor, cover your neck/head with your arm, slide under a nearby table or desk if it’s nearby and hold on to it. And sign up to participate in next month’s ShakeOut to develop the right muscle memory.

Just a few lines about Libya, the worst weather-related disaster of 2023. Heavy rains caused by climate change played a role, but the failure of the two dams was the biggest factor. The ensuing floods led to tsunami-like torrents of water into the center of the city of Derna, which has a population of 90,000 people. Derna, like the whole of Libya, has been trapped for two decades in the clutches of warring, incompetent governments and a failure to maintain infrastructure.

Many government functions are not clear until after a disaster strikes. Establishing building regulations, monitoring compliance, inspecting roads, bridges, and dams, and financing necessary repairs or replacements may receive low priority when wars break out, or when other policies seem more important. It helps to remember that we are dancing on the edge of another government shutdown.

Lori Dengler is professor emeritus of geology at Cal Poly Humboldt and an expert in tsunami and earthquake hazards. Questions or comments about this column, or want a free copy of the “Living on Shaky Ground” preparedness magazine? Leave a message at 707-826-6019 or email Kamome@humboldt.edu.

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