August 16, 1993 12:00 PM

THE ROCK BAND BON JOVI WAS IN MOLINE, Ill., in June when the Mississippi swelled over levees and flooded surrounding towns. “You always think, ‘These things don’t happen to me,’ but it was there all around us,” says band leader Jon Bon Jovi. “Being so close to the devastation, we just kept asking, ‘What can we do?’ ”

They weren’t alone. As the waters of the Midwest’s rivers surged to new highs, so too did the flow of help from bighearted celebrities. Some opened their checkbooks. Nebraska native Johnny Carson chipped in $100,000 during a telethon hosted by morning weathermen Willard Scott and Spencer Christian and Love and War’s Jay Thomas. Others. like Jay Leno, Tom Arnold and Rosie O’Donnell, offered their talents, signing on to perform in a 30-hour laughathon. Also pitching in were Bruce Willis, who will take the mike at Chicago’s Planet Hollywood restaurant later this month to sing a benefit concert, and Ed McMahon, who began collecting Red Cross donations at each stop on his current cross-country Star Search trek.

Much of the help so far has come from the music industry. In Moline, Bon Jovi handed out free tickets to anyone who filled three sandbags, and the band pledged to match donations to the Red Cross made by con-certgoers. John Mellencamp, the grandson of an Indiana farmer, staged benefits in Chicago and Indianapolis (a third concert, with Bob Dylan, was canceled due to rising waters in St. Louis), while Willie Nelson donated the proceeds from three of his Midwest performances—plus 820,000 of his own money—to help flooded-out farmers.

An Aug. 1 show in Branson, Mo., featured appearances by Bob Hope, Ross Perot and Wayne Newton, among others, and raised $557,000. “The great thing about this country,” says Newton, “is the compassion Americans feel for their fellow man.” Not to mention man’s best friends: George Jones donated 60,000 pounds of his private-label pet food to the region’s deprived dogs and cats.

In the weeks ahead, the benefit deluge will continue with concerts by Clint Black and Wynonna to benefit Black’s newly formed relief program, Operation Heartland. So far locals have shown no signs of overdosing on benefits. “There was no old guy who hated rock and roll all his life handing me a huge check,” says Jon Bon Jovi, “but the outpouring was incredible.”

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