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LI cousins frantic to contact kin in Chile after huge quake

Carolina Contreras, 19, of Cedarhurst, and her cousin

Carolina Contreras, 19, of Cedarhurst, and her cousin Carlos Ortiz, 21, at Barros Loco Chilean restaurant in Midtown, spent a sleepless night trying to track down loved ones affected by an overnight earthquake in Chile. (Feb. 27, 2010) Photo Credit: Pervaiz Shallwani

Carolina Contreras had just arrived home in Cedarhurst at about 2 a.m. Saturday when she logged on to her Facebook page and saw the frantic messages about a devastating earthquake in her native Chile.

Contreras, 19, woke her parents and called local family members. But her calls to Santiago, the Chilean capital, and San Antonio, the port city where she lived until she was 11, wouldn't go through.

By Saturday afternoon, Contreras had gotten messages on Facebook from some relatives in both cities, but she said she still hadn't heard from an uncle yet.

"Everybody was trying to get through and there was no contact at all," she said.

The magnitude 8.8 earthquake knocked out phone lines and cut off access to many parts of the country, forcing Chileans in New York to scramble for news of the damage and the status of loved ones.

The phones at the offices of the Chilean Consulate General in Manhattan were ringing almost nonstop, on a day the consulate is normally closed.

As of Saturday afternoon, Patricio Damm, Chile's consul general at the United Nations, said he hadn't yet reached government officials in his home country.

"There is no way to get in touch with them," he said. "The phone lines are down across the country."

In early reports, at least 147 people were killed when the earthquake toppled homes, collapsed bridges and fractured roadways, according to The Associated Press.

A tsunami set off by the quake - the strongest to hit Chile in 50 years, and one of the strongest ever measured anywhere - threatened every nation around the Pacific Ocean, roughly a quarter of the globe.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in a statement released Saturday afternoon, said the city and its residents stood ready to help support recovery efforts, as after Haiti's devastating earthquake last month. City residents could call 311 for information on how to help, and those outside the city could call 212-NEWYORK.

"The powerful and devastating earthquake in Chile, and the threat of damage to coastal areas all over the Pacific, has shaken many New Yorkers who are deeply worried about loved ones back home," the mayor said. "New York City is home to a strong and growing Chilean community, and our thoughts and prayers are with them - and all Chileans - during this difficult time."

For Contreras, the first contact with someone in Chile came when her uncle reached her on Facebook at about 5 a.m., she said.

"He has a store, and everything in the store fell off the shelves: Things are broken, walls have fallen down," she said. "He went down the street to my aunt's, and they were sleeping outside. They have taken a couch outside of the house and are sleeping outside with the kids."

On just a few hours' sleep, Contreras and her cousin Carlos Ortiz, 21, of Inwood, came into work at Barros Luco, a Chilean restaurant on the East Side of Manhattan. News of the devastation streamed in on a television in the upstairs dining room.

"I was sleeping when it happened," Ortiz said. "You watch it on TV, but you feel useless. You are here and you can't do anything about it. We want to be there, but we can't."

- With Nomaan Merchant

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