PARIS — The text-message alert came in the middle of the night: A massive earthquake had hit Morocco. French volunteers scrambled to pull together a nine-person search-and-rescue team, listening devices and other gear to look for people buried under rubble.
The only thing the French aid workers didn’t have was a green light from Morocco to hop on a flight, which could have landed them in the North African country’s disaster zone little more than 24 hours after the Sept. 8 quake that killed more than 2,900 people and injured at least 5,530 others in flattened villages and townhouses.
“The green light never came,” said Arnaud Fraisse, the team’s coordinator and founder of aid group Rescuers Without Borders. “All of our team members who train regularly year-round for this type of thing are miserable that they couldn’t leave and put their skills to use.”
Aid groups in Europe are frustrated that Morocco did not throw open its doors to outside assistance as Turkey did for a devastating quake in February. Quickly grasping the vast scale of the disaster, Turkey within hours appealed for international help, which enabled rescue crews from 90 countries to pull hundreds of people out alive.
Morocco has taken a more limited approach. It accepted government-offered search-and-rescue crews from Spain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and the U.K., but it has not taken up other offers of emergency assistance from the United States, France and elsewhere.
The reasons appear partly logistical. Aid experts said rescue teams can be more of a hindrance than a help if they all rush in uninvited and without coordination.
PHOTOS: Rescue teams are frustrated that Morocco did not accept more international help after earthquake
And quickly getting them to Morocco’s disaster zone in the Atlas Mountains could have been tough. Roads and dirt tracks that can be hard to navigate at the best of times were destroyed and blocked by fallen rocks. Morocco also has bad memories of chaotic international aid that followed another deadly quake in 2004.
After the latest temblor, the Interior Ministry cautioned that poorly coordinated aid “would be counterproductive.”
Moroccan Sen. Lahcen Haddad, who also previously served as the country’s tourism minister, said the immediate priority was clearing roads and reaching survivors.
“We don’t need numbers. We need speedy work to get to the population. We have enough people to do that,” he said in an Associated Press interview.
“If there is aid, it will be later,” he added. “In any case, for those people who are impatient to help, there will be enough work for everyone.”
Caroline Holt of the International Federation of the Red Cross agreed that accessing some quake-hit areas “is extremely complex” and said “the Moroccan government is taking careful steps with regard to opening up.”
“One of the worst things to do in an already chaotic situation is to introduce further uncertainty and potential chaos by opening the doors and everybody coming in,” she said.
Fraisse acknowledged that dozens of well-meaning search teams arriving together from overseas could have been overwhelming. And he noted that other countries have also rejected help from rescue teams like his, including Armenia in 1988.
But he also knows how precious time is when there are lives to be saved. Whisked part of the way by military helicopter, his team reached a disaster zone in Turkey about 48 hours after the quake that killed more than 50,000 people. Rescue deployments were “extremely well-coordinated,” he said. But the French rescuers were still too late – sometimes by agonizing margins – to recover survivors.
Some dead bodies they found were still warm, Fraisse recalled.
He suspects that political tensions between France and Morocco are another reason why his team’s offer wasn’t acted upon. They contacted the Moroccan Embassy in Paris within hours of the quake, but “it’s been radio silence since then,” he said.
“We are paying the price for the quarrel,” he said. “We accept it. It’s part of the game. We’re not going to fight states to say ‘You absolutely have to accept us.’”
Germany, which also has had tensions with Morocco in recent years but now has warmer relations than France, was not taken up on its offer to send a 50-person rescue team and dogs. The team assembled in the quake’s immediate aftermath at a German airport before being told to stand down.
A Czech rescue service also readied a 70-person team that stayed grounded.
“It could be political, religious or any other reasons,” Vladimir Vlcek, its director general, told Czech public radio Tuesday. “The longer it’s delayed, the slimmer is a chance for someone to survive under the rubble.”
Patricia McIlreavy, CEO of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, said Morocco’s response does not seem to be slowing aid from charities and nonprofits. Her Washington-based nonprofit advises donors on effective giving following disasters.
“It’s very easy from the outside to criticize and say, ‘Well, if they just took all this assistance that we’re offering, everything would be fine,’” she said. “But it’s actually a lot of work to coordinate an international response.”
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