Survivalist's hoard put to good use

N.H. widower sends disaster stash of food to Puerto Rico

Posted: October 8, 2017 at 4:28 a.m.
Updated: October 8, 2017 at 4:28 a.m.

Joseph Badame helps out Sept. 29 at a food truck fundraiser for the people of Puerto Rico in Med-ford, N.J. Badame, who filled the basement of his now-foreclosed-on home with food and supplies, is passing his barrels of goods on to the people of the island.

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.

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Photos by The Associated Press

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 preparing for disaster, 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 preparing seemed to have been for nothing, he said.

That changed in September, 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.

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

Badame learned that Victoria Barber 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.

"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, were flown to San Juan on Friday, Victoria Barber said.

Private trucks will deliver the goods to her hometown, 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.

Badame does not consider himself a doomsday prepper.

"I think that's a little severe," he said. "I'd say we're more like Boy Scouts. Being prepared."

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

He and his wife became survivalists in the 1970s, when they returned to New Jersey after spending two years with the Peace Corps in Tunisia. Violent race riots tore through Camden, N.J., in 1969.

More riots broke out two years later, after 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 his wife tried to convince relatives and friends that bad times were coming, and they made a list of 100 people they would welcome into their fortress when trouble hit.

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

The crippling economic crisis never struck, at least not on the scale he and his wife had anticipated.

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

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

But then a personal one struck. In 2005, Phyliss Badame had a catastrophic stroke that left her paralyzed. She died after another stroke in 2013, her husband 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, Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, a Wednesday.

The next 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 in his basement. Local food banks wanted them, but they had no means of transporting the large, heavy 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.

Victoria 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, N.J. Victoria 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 Victoria Barber "came along, gave me a shot of adrenaline. I couldn't believe it."

Badame and Victoria Barber each gained something they didn't have.

He doesn't have children. Her 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 Victoria Barber's front yard.

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