Moroccans debate rebuilding

MOULAY BRAHIM, Morocco -- After many natural disasters, people argue about how to rebuild without changing their community for the worse. Morocco has pledged to rebuild from a September earthquake in line with its architectural heritage. The country plans to spend $11.7 billion on post-quake reconstruction over the next five years -- equivalent to roughly 8.5% of its annual GDP.

Villagers and architects agree that earthquake-safe construction is a top priority. That has created a push for modern building materials, but the government disagrees.

For centuries, families in towns like Moulay Brahim in Morocco's High Atlas mountains constructed their homes of stone and bricks, which they made by tightly ramming handfuls of muddy earth into molds.

From Mexico to Hawaii, the question of rebuilding communities without changing them for the worse arises after virtually all natural disasters. In Morocco, King Mohammed VI's Cabinet pledged in a statement the week after the quake to rebuild "in harmony with heritage and architectural features."

More than 3,000 people died in September's earthquake in Morocco, and about 1,000 villages were damaged. Morocco plans to give residents cash relief for basic necessities, with an additional $13,600 to rebuild households that were completely destroyed and $7,800 to those that were partially destroyed.

In some places, local officials awaiting word from higher authorities have stopped those who have tried to start building. That has sowed resentment as the weather grows colder, laid-off miner Ait Brahim Brahim said in Anerni, a pastoral mountainside village where 36 people died.

Many say they hope to build with the concrete and cinderblocks commonly used in larger Moroccan cities rather than the traditional earthen bricks they suspect may have compounded their misfortune.

"Everyone goes for modern. The traditional ways, no one cares about it," Brahim said.

A subset of architects and engineers is pushing back against the idea that bricks made from earth are more vulnerable to damage.

Mohammed Hamdouni Alami, a professor at Rabat's National School of Architecture, said the idea that newer materials like concrete are signs of higher social class has taken hold as parts of Morocco experienced rapid development.

Alami said bricks of earth, often called adobe in Spain and the Americas, have long been used in wealthier earthquake-prone regions like California. Some of Morocco's most famous buildings constructed with them -- including Marrakech's 16th-century El Badi Palace -- have survived the test of time.

"It's not an issue of materials, it's an issue of techniques," he said.

Kit Miyamoto, a Japanese-American structural engineer, led a team that met with masons and surveyed damage after the Morocco earthquake and reached a similar conclusion. His team's report said it found "no significant difference in the seismic performance of either traditional or modern construction systems." It concluded that poorly constructed homes of a combination of concrete and earthen materials fared worst in the earthquake.

Miyamoto said he hopes Morocco rebuilds using affordable materials that residents will be able to repair. If the government merely rebuilds using more costly concrete, he said, he worries about residents' future ability to make small repairs to maintain seismic safety.

His team's recommendations included that rebuilding should adhere to a code with new seismic safety requirements added in 2011, seven years after a violent earthquake shook the country's north.

The code includes sections about earthen materials, foundations, building reinforcement and the ideal space between bricks. It restricted the number of floors that could be built in earthquake-prone areas and prohibited the use of mud bricks on "soft ground."

However, the extent of its implementation remains limited -- a problem many have blamed for damage in cities like Casablanca and rural parts of the country hit by the earthquakes. There, many walls -- whether made of concrete or earthen bricks -- lacked adequate foundations.

Information for this article was contributed by Yassine Oulhiq of The Associated Press.