O’Neill restores history through the magic of piano

Posted August 4, 2017 at 12:00 am

The Catholic Commentator

One of the first things you notice when you sit down to talk with Baton Rouge piano dealer Raph O’Neill is his energy. He has a lot. Ask him about the August flood, you’ll see even more of it. That’s because what O’Neill and his employees did during that catastrophic event took a lot of energy – and expertise.


Raph O’Neill stands by one of several grand pianos still in storage after the flood a year ago. Photos by Bonnie Van | The Catholic Commentator


“No one knew it was going to be that bad.” O’Neill, a member of St. George Church in Baton Rouge, recalled a phone call that alerted him to the situation.

“On Sunday (Aug. 14), I get a call from one of our piano teachers in Denham Springs. She has two grand pianos and an upright and she was in tears. One of the grands was only six months old and there was water in the house and it was rising. It got up to the legs but not in the piano,” O’Neill said. “I knew we had to get those pianos out. A piano is not just a piece of furniture, it’s like a member of the family. And, in this case, they were heirlooms that she wanted to pass down to her kids.”

With the store’s delivery truck broken down at a repair shop in Denham Springs, O’Neill had to wait until early the next morning to jump into action.

“I called Ryder as soon as they opened and got the last truck in town. Then, I went with my driver and a helper and we couldn’t get to Denham Springs because of all of the flooding. So, we had to go to Greenwell Springs Road and the aftermath was just horrendous,” he said.


Employees Abraham Rogers and Cedric Wilson moved the pianos from the house to the truck, but O’Neill had to figure out where to take the instruments. Average grand pianos are five feet six inches long and weigh 800 pounds. They need a lot of space.

“I rented five climate controlled storage units, it was all they had, and I went into the piano storage business,” O’Neill said. “I had more than 40 grands within two weeks.”

O’Neill also emailed 138 piano teachers with tips on what to do with an upright piano that has been through a flood: elevate it, remove the bottom board and put fans on them to dry them out. Grand pianos are salvageable if the sound board had not gotten wet. The legs are replaceable. After the email, O’Neill said he received hundreds of calls asking for help.

“A piano is the third most expensive item in a house. First, it’s the house, then the car, then the piano. So, you’re talking about thousands of dollars in an investment,” he said. “The estimate is that in every 100,000 homes, 3 to 5 percent have pianos in them. So, if 100,000 homes flooded, you’re talking three to 5,000 pianos. That’s a lot of pianos. I saw hundreds on the curb that were ruined.”

After the waters subsided and hundreds of pianos assessed for damage, O’Neill found his work was far from over.

“It’s really a God thing,” he explained.

O’Neill was contacted by Mary Grace Gellekanao, a one-armed piano player from Denham Springs who travels and plays for her ministry.

“She had lost her piano in the flood and says if you run across one salvaged from the flood please let me know,” he said.

That request started a new journey for O’Neill. He said that on many of the grand pianos he assessed the digital piano player mechanism attached below the keyboard was destroyed by floodwater. However, the piano itself was salvageable.

“So, we were able to get new legs on one of the pianos and donate it to Mary Grace,” he said.

About 10 more salvageable pianos were donated to students. And, a monetary donation, teamed with a price cut from one piano company, allowed O’Neill to help get students back to their lessons with digital pianos.

“There were displaced students living in FEMA trailers and they didn’t have room for a piano,” he said. “But, the portable digital piano is much smaller and has a collapsable bench. We were able to provide 28 digital pianos to students whose families lost everything. We were trying to help these students keep some normalcy in their lives.”

O’Neill has 15 pianos left in three storage units. He doesn’t know how long they will be there. The owners are still waiting for their homes to be repaired. But, he’ll be ready for delivery as soon as he gets the call.


Piano legs from a grand piano show water damage from the flood.  The legs are replaceable.