Survivalist spends 45 years filling huge basement with food — then decides Puerto Ricans need it more

Clark Mindock
Joseph Badame had collected the goods over 45 years with his wife: Elizabeth Robertson/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP

A grieving widower survivalist and a young Puerto Rican couple have found a way to turn tragedy into hope.

Forty barrels, filled with over 300 pounds of food each are making their way to Puerto Rico after Joseph Badame ran into Victoria Barber at an estate sale where bankers were selling of Mr Badame’s New Jersey home. The food — amassed over 45 years as Mr Badame prepared with his late wife for a potential national or international crisis — were not for sale, and the 74-year-old was concerned it would all get tossed.

But on the day of the estate sale, Ms Barber was in the market for massive food donations: Just the day before, Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico, leaving most of the island without food, water, and reliable food supplies — including Ms Barber’s hometown. She and her husband Anthony had started a fund out of their food truck for donations to help, but she was not expecting to come across a stash of supplies as big as what Mr Badame had to offer.

"I'm having trouble putting it into words, but it was just lifesaving for my family," Ms Barber told The Independent. "There were 70 barrels filled with food when my entire family was completely devastated from the hurricane, and in dire need of help. So, it was, like, this miracle."

Ms Barber’s hometown, Arecibo - just west of San Juan - was devastated by Hurricane Maria alongside much of Puerto Rico.

Water remains scarce there more than two weeks after the storm made landfall, and temperatures are have exceeded 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Hospitals remain on emergency power with no air conditioning. An official at the hospital there says they are at least 49 dead from “indirect deaths” related to the storm — those who have had heart attacks but not been able to get adequate care, those who fell from roofs expecting damage, people on kidney dialysis machines that failed, for example.

“We have not heard from my grandmother since Tuesday about 8:30 am. Since then we learned she was on her roof waiting to be rescued because floods were 10 feet high,” Ms Barber wrote on the GoFundMe page she set up to help. “My home town is gone, my family are all displaced. My heart is broken.”

Ms Barber said that each barrel has enough food to feed 84 people for up to four months. The first shipment, due to arrive Saturday, will be taken off of the private plane it was sent on and brought directly to her town on trucks. The flight was volunteered to them, so they just need to pay the truck drivers. The next shipment will cost about $175 a barrel to fly over, and will occur in a few weeks.

The shipment will help out quite a bit: So far, she's only aware of her family receiving one box of food.

"I know that they did receive a box. They waited in line for eight hours to receive a box of food, and they were very grateful, you could hear it in their voices," she said. "Happy to have oatmeal. Happy to have cans of Chef Boyardee."

Mr Badame had developed the stockpile alongside his wife, Phyllis, after they returned to the US from stints in the Peace Corps in the 1970s. That time was particularly volatile in South Jersey, where they lived, with race riots erupting in Camden, leading to an exodus of white families out of that city after one in 1971 after a Puerto Rican man was killed by two white police officers.

The Badames moved a bit further away from Camden two years after that riot, and over the years had built a large home equipped to withstand a major crisis, should one happen.

But Phyllis had a massive stroke that left her paralyzed in 2005. Mr Badame had to quit his job to care for her, and he went broke. His wife died in 2013 after another stroke. Mr Badame received his eviction notice last month, after defaulting on mortgage and tax payments.

Faced with that tragedy, the opportunity to help Puerto Rico has given him a new sense of purpose.

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