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Eighty Auckland police officers are being flown into Christchurch tonight to help enforce a 12-hour curfew in the city.
Anyone found breaching the curfew between 7pm and 7am in the central city and in Kaipoi can be arrested, say police.
"This is in order to protect the public from falling debris," said Inspector Al Stewart.
As darkness falls in Canterbury, people face an anxious night after the terrifying early wake-up call today left homes and businesses ruined, knocked out power and water, chewed up roads, demolished cars and left families living in uncertainty.
The destructive 7.1 magnitude earthquake that struck at 4.35am, centred 30km west of Christchurch, caused violent shaking in Canterbury and further afield, and was followed by a series of frightening aftershocks throughout the day.
Two people have been reported seriously injured, after being hit by falling masonry and glass. A number of others have been treated for minor injuries.
One of the heaviest and most unnerving aftershocks hit about 5pm today, just when things seemed to have gone quiet. As night closes in, and people head to their beds, many residents will have a nagging fear that they may have to relive the experience, or face something even worse.
Many have been forced out of their damaged homes - especially in the central city area, which is being likened to a "warzone" - while there are concerns that homes might have suffered unseen structural damage making them more susceptible to a further quake.
While power has been restored for most, some are still without water and there are still worries about the wastewater system.
A team of 42 urban search and rescue specialists and three dogs are on their way to the city tonight from Auckland and Palmerston North.
Two Iroquois helicopters from No. 3 Squadron at Ohakea have also been tasked to assist in Christchurch.
Nice old brick buildings and suburban shops appear to have fared worst in the destruction.
There are shop verandahs down and walls collapsed. A block of shops on Cranford Street, on the north side of the city, has imploded into rubble.
Prime Minister John Key and his party went to the Art Gallery for a briefing on the civil defence situation at the headquarters and is tonight travelling through the city by car to look at the worst affected areas.
Around the central city, decorative brick and cement work on a lot of nice old buildings has cracked and tumbled. Rubble has tumbled into the streets.
All across the city, house chimneys have fallen and many have crashed through roofs.
There are cracks across the roads where the earth has pushed against itself, or moved.
Pavements are smashed, windows are broken in some tower blocks. The roof has collapsed at the historic printer's building in Victoria Street.
There are few cars and fewer people in the central city area.
To add to the ghost town feeling of the city, from about 4.30pm smoke was drifting from the scene of a building fire in Manchester Street.
But in Darfield - the epicentre of the quake, whose destructive force rivaled the 1931 Napier earthquake - there is a community already battling back.
The Darfield Four Square was closed for the first time in its 30 years of operation.
The quake had pushed over shelves, smashing alcohol, which could be smelled down the street.
Visitors and locals turned up out of the blue to help clean up the mess.
Kelvin Taege, who owns the Four Square with his wife Delwin, said: "Once home stopped shaking we came down here because we wanted to make sure the building was secure and there were no windows broken. Its pretty gutting but friends and customers have just appeared this morning to save our butts.
"It's amazing, it's what living in a community is all about."
Marilyn Worgan of Glentunnel, has worked in the Four Square for six years: "As soon as it happened I called to ask how they were. I knew there was no way they could handle this on their own so I said I'd be down as soon as I could get there. I just wish it would have stopped, I live on my own and my neighbour came over to check on me, it was so nice. He said he was going around to check on others who lived on their own.
"Glentunnel is a little town and that's what its all about out here."
Among those cleaning up the mess was Barbara Ufton of Darfield.
"I just turned up, saw the mess and said I'd be back. The community supports itself and I'll be here till it's finished."
Other residents from suburbs around Christchurch have told nzherald.co.nz of the fears and tears caused by the earthquake.
A farmer near Rangiora gathered his family together when the quake hit, fearing they were going to die.
"He said they should spend their last moments together. He was really scared," a neighbour said.
Kristy Schouten lives in Eyreton, about 10km from the epicentre of the quake.
"It was insane, fricking scary," she said.
"I woke up and didn't know what was happening, it just went forever. The aftershocks still shook the whole house."
Paul Thornhill said he had to clamber around the fallen furniture in his bedroom to get to the doorframe.
"I could hardly stand it was so violent," he said.