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Elementary school children crouch under their desks as part of a nationwide earthquake drill at a Tokyo elementary school, 01 September 2006.YOSHIKAZU TSUNO

Once a bastion of Cold War fears from the 1950s, the old drill "duck and cover," which scared the dickens out of schoolchildren everywhere, is back in B.C.

At 10 a.m. Wednesday, British Columbians were asked to take a minute or two to dive under the nearest desk and stay there, just as students did more than 50 years ago to practise what civil defence experts said was the best protection against a nuclear attack.

This time, Mother Nature is the threat. The drill is designed to prepare residents for what all geoscientists agree is the inevitable shake, rattle and roll of the ground moving in significant force to produce a major earthquake somewhere in the province, some time in the future.

Called the Great British Columbia ShakeOut, the exercise is already being billed as the largest such drill in Canadian history. So far, organizations representing more than 420,000 residents have registered to take part, including nearly 800 schools.

Participants are being urged to "Drop, Cover and Hold On," just as they should if a real quake started shaking the windows and rattling the walls.

Heather Lyle, co-chairwoman of the ShakeOut organizing committee, said desks are the best furniture to hide under for protection during an earthquake, although tables will do the trick, too. The oft-heard advice to stand in a doorway is dead wrong, she added.

Asked whether residents might find it a bit silly to suddenly cower under a desk, when nothing is happening inside or outside, Ms. Lyle replied: "Wouldn't you rather do something that might save your life one day? The purpose of all this is to build earthquake awareness."

The B.C. exercise is a direct steal from the annual Great California ShakeOut, which began in 2008 and has nothing to do with that beleaguered state's finances. Last year, nearly seven million Californians hit the ground as a simulated Big One hit.

The drill here is timed to the 311th anniversary of the last major quake to hit the province. The so-called Great Cascadia Earthquake, registering about 9.0, is believed to have shaken native longhouses and brought down trees on Jan. 26, 1700.

Organizers hope to make the ShakeOut an annual event.

"We don't know when another big one will occur," said Ms. Lyle, "so it's best to be as prepared as possible. That way, when it does hit, we'll be ready."

Vancouver City Hall is among many municipal locations taking part. Councillor Heather Deal said she already has a pillow, water bottle and iPod with "earthquake-appropriate music" to prepare for 10 a.m. "I'm so short, I think I can just walk under my desk," she said.

Ms. Deal said she recalls being caught up in an earthquake in Victoria that terrified her. "We couldn't remember what to do. Go under a doorway, go outside, or what? So this is a very valuable exercise."

She said she will not feel at all foolish at suddenly disappearing beneath her desk. "I've done many silly things in my life. This will not be one of them."

Mayor Gregor Robertson, however, will not be diving under anything, as the drill unfolds. He is attending the Big City Mayors' caucus meeting in faraway, flat Regina.