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Buildings constructed with six-inch concrete walls could collapse if the Lower Mainland is hit by a major earthquake, says a professor at the University of British Columbia.

Perry Adebar, an engineer, traveled to Chile last year after the South American country was hit by a magnitude 8.8 quake. While there, Prof. Adebar studied a number of the more modern buildings that had crumbled to the ground.

He discovered those buildings had used thinner walls. Whereas eight- to 10-inch walls had been the norm, many of the newer buildings used six-inch walls that were more prone to sudden failure and less resistant to earthquakes.

Six-inch walls, Prof. Adebar said, aren't limited to Chile - they're also common in B.C.

"That worries me because we've got lots of buildings in Vancouver that were built in the 1960s and 1970s. We now know, we look at these buildings and say, 'How is this one going to do in a big earthquake?' "

Prof. Adebar, whose findings were featured in an episode of Daily Planet on the Discovery Channel, said he's not trying to be an alarmist. He's simply concerned that no one body is keeping a careful eye on the area's privately owned buildings.

"We need to have some system where we look at the buildings we think are the bad ones," he said.

Prof. Adebar's comments came the same day the province marked the Great British Columbia Shakeout. Hundreds of thousands of residents dropped under their tables, covered up, and held on to raise earthquake awareness.

Southwest B.C. is the most seismically active populated region in Canada and sees hundreds of quakes every year. Wednesday marked the 311th anniversary of the last magnitude 9 earthquake to hit the province. The major earthquakes - known as megathrusts - occur every 200 to 800 years along the boundary between the Juan de Fuca and North America plates.

Prof. Adebar said Chile is hit by a large earthquake about every 20 years. "We don't get those earthquakes, right? So that means all our bad buildings are still standing and waiting. … And there's nobody worrying about it."

The increased focus on earthquakes Wednesday led many British Columbians to reconsider their safety preparations, from food and shelter to home insurance. At least that's what the Insurance Bureau of Canada was hoping.

Serge Corbeil, an IBC spokesman, said a survey conducted by the provincial government in 2001 found about 65 per cent of homeowners with insurance had earthquake coverage.

"What I'm told anecdotally by people in the industry is it tends to vary. Last year, we had three major earthquakes around the world. It apparently triggers more interest when that happens," said Mr. Corbeil, who also ducked under his desk for the ShakeOutBC drill.

When asked how much damage there might be if a major earthquake hit the Lower Mainland, Mr. Corbeil said he could not provide a rough estimate. A study conducted by an insurance provider in the early 1990s estimated the damage would be between $7-billion and $13-billion, he said, but there's been a great deal of development since.

Mr. Corbeil said homeowners who opt for the earthquake insurance option on their plans won't be left out in the cold if the Big One causes catastrophic damage. Insurers must satisfy regulators they have the funds to cover any such disasters.

Richard Pindral, president of the Insurance Brokers Association of BC, said he does his best to let homeowners know the risk they're taking by not signing up for earthquake insurance. He said only 10 per cent of the customers who come through his Hyde Park Insurance Agency in Burnaby have such coverage.