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There are no beds and they are only miles from home, but hundreds of people devastated by the Christchurch earthquake are staying put in emergency shelters - at least they feel safe there.

And for one solo mum, seeing the shell-shocked faces huddled at a centre finally brought it home that the disaster is real, and it happened in Christchurch, not a Third World country.

Welfare centres set up in Linwood College, Burnside High School and Addington Raceway have housed more than 250 Christchurch residents too scared to stay at home.

With aftershocks rumbling throughout the night, Sarah McElroy, 19, could not doze off.

She kept imagining the terror would start all over again.

So she and her 16-year-old sister moved to the lounge to sleep together. Soon, their mother and uncle joined them. But every time the earth shook again, making cracked walls and ceilings creak, the teenage girls were startled awake, the younger one screaming.

It was after midnight when the family decided they would seek refuge in the solid concrete centre at Addington Raceway.

They grabbed a few blankets, shut their cats in the kitchen and drove out.

The centre has been set up in a large, carpeted hall with concrete walls, lined with cushions as bedding.

Families huddled in corners as dozens of Red Cross and other aid workers looked on. It may not have been luxurious, but it let the McElroys get a few hours of decent sleep.

"We feel safe here. If anything major happens we've got the right people on hand to help us. It's just thinking there could be another big one," Miss McElroy said.

Some people snored - but even that was a sign that displaced Christchurch residents, traumatised by a disaster, could finally relax.

The family will stay there as long as they can, because their house - after 15 years living in it - no longer feels like home.

Solo mum Jo Bowen arrived last night with her 9-year-old daughter, who could not bear to stay at home.

Ms Bowen had also been told her roof could collapse if winds got stronger, and her wiring could cause a fire if her house was reconnected to the power grid.

She has bruises on her arm from her daughter, Danielle, grabbing on to her. But none of it felt real - she could not believe Christchurch had been hit by a disaster until she arrived at the emergency shelter and saw all the shell-shocked faces.

"It does feel real now. And we feel relaxed. Not like sitting at home."

Giving money
* Salvation Army Appeal: 0800 530 000.

* Red Cross: 0900 33 200.

* Govt helpline: 0800 779 997.

* 24/7 Healthline: 0800 611 116.

* Earthquake Commission: 0800 326 243.