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25 Feb 2004 14:40
Aid and development groups on Wednesday pointed an accusing finger at construction firms over the high death toll in the earthquake that rocked northeast Morocco, saying they ignored the building code for the quake-prone region.
At least 560 people died and hundreds more were injured in the 6,3 magnitude quake that struck in the early hours of Tuesday, reducing entire towns and villages near the Mediterranean port city of Al Hoceima to rubble.
“The old rural clay houses can’t stand up to such a shock, but neither can many recent buildings, because they do not meet construction standards,” said Omar Moussa Abdellah, a member of a regional economic development organisation.
He accused the authorities and construction firms of ignoring the lessons they should have learned from the last major tremor in the region, on May 26 1994.
That quake was of much weaker intensity than Tuesday’s and claimed only six lives, but it caused the scientific community to urge the authorities to update construction norms to take into account the level of seismic activity in the region.
Medical doctor Mohammed el-Allam, who was working on the civil security rescue effort after the quake, also blamed “poor construction quality” for causing the collapse of many buildings in the tremor.
“Some buildings are still standing but they have such big cracks that they are no longer habitable,” he said.
A law enacted after the 1994 quake in the region outlined standards that construction firms were supposed to abide by, but the law is widely flouted, according to el-Allam.
“The buildings that are still standing despite the strong tremor were the only ones constructed in line with the  standards,” he said.
L’Economiste newspaper, which has close links with Morocco’s business community, blamed the northeastern region’s “seismic vulnerability on the manifest lack of restraint and the ease” with which some construction firms are given authorisation for building projects.
“Independent house-building still flourishes and, even in state-authorised construction projects, companies that use undeclared labour are still used, on the grounds that their prices are better—which is doubtless because they don’t pay social taxes,” said the paper.
L’Economiste also decried the fact that the 1994 law provides no formal punishment for those who flouted the earthquake-zone building code.
“In other words, building standards are left open to interpretation by entrepreneurs,” the paper said.
The criticism was an eery echo of a University Mohammed V department of geology study that blamed much of the material damage on “lack of structural design”, warning that the region “should be prepared for future earthquakes”.
Local officials have rejected the accusations.
“The earthquake ... was much more violent that that of 1994 and if the epicentre had not been situated far offshore in the Mediterranean, the port of Al Hoceima itself would have been destroyed,” said an official who gave his name only as Mr Boudra.
“Construction standards are not to blame,” he added.
The main town in the region, Al Hoceima was practically untouched by the quake, while the heavily populated towns of Imzouren and Ait-Kamra, and villages to the south, where houses are built mainly in the traditional manner of mud brick, were reduced to rubble and up to three-quarters of the population killed.—Sapa-AFP
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