The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A survivalist filled his massive basement with food — then decided Puerto Ricans needed it more

Joseph Badame at a food-truck fundraiser on Sept. 29, in Medford, N.J. (Elizabeth Robertson/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)

Joseph Badame was a lonely man, still grieving his wife’s death.

And then he lost everything.

Buried in debt because of eight years of medical bills and lost income, he could not prevent banks from foreclosing on his custom-built New Jersey home — an 8,500-square-foot fortress with separate living quarters for multiple families, plus a massive basement equipped with bunk beds, propane- and kerosene-powered refrigerators, laundry facilities and showers.

The basement also included a fallout shelter.

Badame and his wife, Phyliss, were survivalists who stocked up on everything: dry food, generators, fuel, survival books, thousands of rolls of toilet paper — all to keep them alive in the event of a disaster or some other crisis.

But Phyliss, who came up with the idea of prepping, is now gone. Other family members never really supported the endeavor, and there aren’t many of them left to help or save anyway.

And Badame, the 74-year-old widower, is being evicted from the house in Medford, N.J.

Forty-five years of prepping seemed to have been for nothing, he said.

That changed last month, when he met a couple who run a Puerto Rican food truck in Medford.

Victoria and Anthony Barber were everything Joseph Badame was not anymore — young, energetic and full of life.

They met during an estate sale of Badame’s belongings. The company facilitating it had asked the Barbers to provide food for prospective buyers.

Badame learned that Victoria is from Puerto Rico, and that Hurricane Maria had left some of her relatives without food.

So he told her about the food supply in his basement — and said she could have all of it.

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“I can’t put into words just how much food there was,” she said. “It was enough to feed a town.”

In the basement were 80 barrels, each weighing 360 pounds.

They were filled with bags of rice, flour, sugar, dried beans, pancake and chocolate mixes, seeds and lots of other things that do not spoil and are easy to prepare.

The food that the Badames had intended to eat in case of crisis will now feed starving people in two Puerto Rican towns devastated by Hurricane Maria.

“Those people are starving and they have nothing,” he said. “I just can’t sit by.”

Half of those barrels, along with pallets of bottled water and dried milk, will be flown to San Juan on Friday, Barber said.

Private trucks will then deliver the goods to her home town, Arecibo, a coastal city 45 miles west of San Juan.

The food will feed dozens of families.

The rest of the supplies are still in Badame’s basement, but the Barbers eventually plan to deliver them to another part of Puerto Rico, to feed even more families.

Badame does not consider himself a doomsday prepper.

“I think that’s a little severe,” he told The Washington Post. “I’d say we’re more like Boy Scouts. Being prepared.”

He had spent years preparing for a massive economic crisis coupled with war or violence, he said — but not a biblical or apocalyptic scenario.

He and Phyliss became survivalists in the 1970s, when they returned to New Jersey after spending two years with the Peace Corps in Tunisia. Violent race riots engulfed Camden in 1969.

More riots erupted two years later, following the beating and death of a Puerto Rican motorist at the hands of two white police officers. Looting and arson destroyed downtown Camden; many residents, most of them white, moved elsewhere.

“Phyliss decided that we needed to prepare,” Badame said.

In 1973, they moved from Pennsauken Township to Medford, where Badame began building their giant house.

He and Phyliss tried to convince relatives and friends that bad times were coming and made a list of 100 people they would welcome into their fortress when bad times hit.

Many of them laughed at the endeavor. Still, Badame, an architectural engineer, designed the house to be big enough for all of them and stocked up. Over the years, Badame estimates that he and Phyliss spent $1 million on their effort.

The massive economic crisis never struck, at least not on the scale he and Phyliss had anticipated.

But, he said, it’s only a matter of time.

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The Badames were prepared to survive a national or international crisis.

But then a personal one struck: In 2005, Phyliss had a massive stroke that left her paralyzed. She died after another stroke in 2013, Joseph said.

He had quit his job and spent years taking care of his wife — and he was broke. He paid bills with credit cards and defaulted on his mortgage and tax payments, he said.

Last month, he received his eviction notice.

“I was devastated,” he said. “There was no reason for me to continue the survival center. I just didn’t have a purpose in life.”

Then, he met Victoria Barber.

Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, a Wednesday.

The following day, ahead of the estate sale, Badame met the Barbers.

At the time, he had not been able to figure out what to do with all the supplies he had in his basement. Local food banks wanted them, but they had no means of transporting the massive barrels. Badame was dreading that his food reserves, which were not included in the estate sale, would just be thrown away.

“I don’t know what would’ve happened to me if that final insult was placed upon me,” he said.

Barber had just started a donation drive to help feed more than 50 family members in Puerto Rico.

Badame was the first to donate; he gave $100.

Then he showed her his basement.

She expected to see a small pantry and said she would have been grateful for a case of beans.

Instead, she saw stacks of barrels.

Barber and her husband spent the next week raising money to transport the barrels. Badame helped, too, and wore a red T-shirt: “#PRSTRONG” it said, with a heart below it.

Members of the local police department and a high school soccer team helped carry the supplies out of the basement, and the barrels were repacked so that each contained a variety of dried goods.

By Wednesday, 40 of Badame’s barrels were on wooden pallets, covered in plastic wrap, waiting to be delivered to Puerto Rico on a Delta Air Lines flight out of Newark. Barber said they plan to deliver the remaining 40 barrels by ship.

“This is lifesaving,” she said. “What Joe has done for me, I could never pay back. I told him that. He prepared for one group of people, but he ended up helping an entire town.”

Badame said it was his own life that was saved.

“I’m tired, old, depressed, feeling like I’m a failure regarding the survival thing,” he said. Then Barber “came along, gave me a shot of adrenaline. I couldn’t believe it.”

Badame and Barber each gained something they didn’t have.

He doesn’t have children; her own father died when she was young.

“I gained a dad out of all this,” she said.

Badame now lives in a 300-square-foot trailer, parked in Barber’s front yard.


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