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Grade two students Emily McMyn, left, and Maggie Kita take cover under their desks during an earthquake drill at Hollyburn Elementary School in West Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday January 26, 2011. More than 400,000 British Columbians took part in the drill called "ShakeOut" simultaneously at schools and businesses across the province in the largest earthquake-preparedness program ever held in CanadaDARRYL DYCK

Wednesday was yet another day the earth didn't move, but British Columbians pretended that it did.

Husky firefighters, giggling school kids and even politicians, along with hundreds of thousands of other B.C. residents, dove under desks or tables to protect themselves from a mock earthquake, in the province's first Great British Columbian ShakeOut. The drill was the largest exercise of its kind in Canadian history.

The only significant absentees were in the very seat of power itself, the century-old provincial legislature in Victoria, flagged by experts as one of the likeliest buildings in the province to collapse into a pile of rubble during an earthquake.

Shortly before zero hour, those working there were told not to follow the "drop, cover and hold on" instructions, which were to have been followed by an orderly evacuation. It would have interrupted the work day, explained Speaker Bill Barisoff.

"It's not that we weren't taking part," Mr. Barisoff said, from his Penticton riding. "The only part we didn't partake in was getting people to go under their desks at 10 o'clock, and we didn't evacuate the building."

ShakeOut co-chairwoman Heather Lyle said she was buoyed by the 466,000 people who registered to take part in the drill, despite the legislature's "bizarre" decision to pull out.

"We've got people thinking now about what to do, and that will become habit-forming," said Ms. Lyle. "We hope to do even better next year." Experts consider B.C., particularly its coastal regions, highly vulnerable to earthquakes.

Few shirked their shake responsibilities at Vancouver's stately city hall.

"It's time," Vancouver Councillor Andrea Reimer said calmly, as a warning buzzer sounded in the midst of a discussion she was chairing on the urban aboriginal people's study.

Ms. Reimer and four attendees quickly disappeared into the darkness beneath their thick meeting table to wait out the 60 seconds of simulated tremors. They didn't stop talking.

"This is the best table in the building," said one. "I'm delighted there are no cameras," said another. "When you cram under here, it makes you think about a real earthquake hitting us," Ms. Reimer chimed in. "A minute is a long time."

Elsewhere, an office secretary said she took the opportunity to check for mice, while receptionist Kathy Forster said she thought of her earthquake emergency box at home. "I took an earthquake course, and I got totally scared."

The provincewide event was somewhat more dramatic at West Vancouver's Hollyburn Elementary, where real rumbling noises ripped through the school's PA system at 10 a.m. sharp.

In Sylvia King's primary class, all 23 students, warned by the school principal to "drop, cover and hold on" the moment they heard the rumbling, leapt to their feet, slid under tiny desks and hid their faces.

"Hold on tight," said Ms. King, herself tucked under a sturdy round table in the corner. She clutched the table legs in front of her.

Afterwards, Grade 3 student Ali Jamal Omidi said the drill made him appreciate the need to be prepared for an earthquake. "Sometimes I feel worried, but when I hear a rumbling sound, I just run under the table."

Firefighters, meanwhile, aren't used to hiding under tables when a disaster strikes. They head for the trouble zone.

Nonetheless, at the Port Coquitlam fire hall, a dozen first responders in their blue shirts dutifully hit the deck when a recorded voice told them to duck and cover. After their 60 seconds under tables, they made a quick check to make sure no one was injured and got ready to work.

"Okay, guys, I think we've had an earthquake," a senior firefighter called out. The men raced to their bright red trucks. Moments later the hall was empty.

Afterwards, there were a few chuckles about the fake quake. "We're not really known for hiding under tables," said Captain Ron Fahlman. "But we went with the flow, because that's what we'd like the public to do [in the event of an earthquake]"

The province's chief earthquake expert, Victoria-based seismologist Alison Bird of Natural Resources Canada, said she was heartened by the drill's success. "Knowing that at least 10 per cent of the population took part is fantastic. It represents one large step preparing for when we have a real earthquake."

While there's no guarantee against serious harm during a quake, taking cover under a desk or similar object is normally the best way to protect oneself against falling debris, Ms. Bird said.

"In countries such as New Zealand and Chile, where there have been large earthquakes without high casualties, it's been proven to be very effective."

Ms. Bird said the West Coast is overdue for the Big One. "We've been unusually lucky, so far. We could very easily experience a major earthquake within the next few decades. It could even be tomorrow."



With reports from Sunny Dhillon, Justine Hunter and Niamh Scallan

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