A resident walks along a damaged street in Talca, Chile, Saturday, Feb. 27, 2010, after a powerful earthquake struck central Chile. (AP Photo/Roberto Candia)
The Bay Area's small Chilean community is scrambling to get in touch with loved ones in Chile today after a massive 8.8-magnitude earthquake struck the coastal South American country overnight.
The quake hit shortly after 3:30 a.m. near the city of Concepcion.
Pablo Valenzuela, owner of Cafe Valparaiso at the La Pena Cultural Center in Berkeley, said he was working late last night and learned of the quake when his wife called him.
"I finished and I went home right away," he said.
Valenzuela is from Valparaiso, which is several hours north of Concepcion but is said to have been hit hard by the quake. "It was very bad," he said.
He began calling his family but couldn't get through because the phone lines were down. Finally, he reached his sister and learned his mother, sisters and other family members had survived. His sister's home was damaged but was left standing.
"They are scared ... every now and then they have a little earthquake," Valenzuela said.
When he first talked to his sister it was still dark in Valparaiso and the power was out, and she couldn't see the damage; when he spoke with her a second time after the sun came up she told him the streets were filled with debris.
"The houses, they look OK from the outside but the damage is inside," he said.
He said many modern houses in Valparaiso were built with seismic considerations in mind because the city has a history of earthquakes.
Valenzuela's wife is still trying to contact a relative in Chile. They have been using Skype and Facebook to gather information online.
Valenzuela said the Bay Area's Chilean community is small, roughly 2,500 people. La Pena serves as one of its hubs.
Next Saturday, Sausalito is holding a celebration to mark the 50th anniversary of its sister-city relationship with Vina del Mar, a city near Valparaiso.
Valenzuela said Cafe Valparaiso will likely provide empanadas for the celebration and that a group of Chilean dancers had been practicing for the event at La Pena.
There was a large festival in Vina del Mar on Friday night, and the celebration had ended just before the earthquake hit, he said.
"Last night this festival was full of people," he said.
Paula Tejeda, who owns Chile Lindo on 16th Street in San Francisco, was walking through the Mission District selling empanadas to the late-night bar crowd when she heard the news.
"I happened to run into the son of a Chilean just as I was there with my basket of empanadas," Tejeda said. "He says, 'Oh, it's funny you're here,' and he shows me a text on his phone and it says 'Chile earthquake'."
Her parents are from Chile - her mother from Santiago - but Tejeda is from New York, she said.
"Communication is difficult," she said. "I have an aunt that was able to reach an uncle and he was able to tell us that everyone in the family is fine."
She had heard there was severe damage in Santiago but said it could have been worse if the earthquake had occurred during the day.
"Because it was at night a lot of people were not out and about, and it wasn't as devastating," she said.
Tejeda said she will be in contact with La Pena and other organizations within the local Chilean community to see what can be done to help people here deal with the news.