U.S. East Coast battens down ahead of Hurricane Sandy

NEW YORK, Oct 26 (Reuters) - Virginia declared a state of emergency on Friday, neighboring states readied utility crews and New York City said it may shut down mass transit as authorities along the U.S. East Coast pr e pared for a p otential pounding from Hurr icane Sandy.

From the Carolinas to Maine, municipal authorities kept a close watch on forecasts tracking the shifting path of the fierce ``Frankenstorm,'' which could come ashore Monday with heavy rain, storm surges and possibly near hurricane-force winds.

In New York City, officials were considering closing down bus and subway lines next week, a step taken only once before - when Hurricane Irene slammed the city in 2011.

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, in a precautionary move, declared a state of emergency to free up resources. He urged residents in coastal areas to prepare to evacuate before the storm hits and telling others to stock up on provisions needed to get through any disaster.

``I encourage all Virginians to gather batteries, blankets, water, canned goods and other necessities prior to the anticipated onset of storm conditions,'' McDonnell said in a statement. ``We could see severe weather lasting for 48 hours or more in the state.''

The storm's likely knock on Virginia prompted Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's campaign to cancel his Sunday night rally in Virginia Beach.

Gusts from the storm's 550 - mile (890 - km) wind field were being felt in southern Florida on Friday as the slow-moving h urricane that killed at least 31 people in the Caribbean ro ared tow ard the United States.

Forecasters dubbed it ``Frankenstorm'' because three merging weather systems were expected to be bolted together int o a single ``hybrid'' super storm headed for landfall close to Halloween, the holiday heralded by ghosts, goblins and monsters.

Utilities from neighboring inland states readied staging areas so that crews could answer calls for help as they come in from stricken towns and cities along the East Coast.

Con Edison in New York said it was gearing up for tidal surges that may be worse that during Irene.

``All company personnel and field crews are preparing for high winds, heavy rains and flooding conditions that could wallop electric, gas and steam systems when the storm moves into New York City and Westchester County,'' Con Ed said in a statement.

The utility pressed customers to heed safety tips regarding downed electrical wires and keeping flashlights at the ready as well as freezers closed during power outages.

Residents offered their own storm-preparation ideas on Facebook, Twitter and through email messages.

``I have a magnetic flashlight that adheres to the fridge. The idea is that, in case of a sudden blackout, we can always find the flashlight which will help us find the candles!'' wrote Linda Federico-ó Murchú of Montclair, New Jersey, in response to a friend's Facebook request for tips.

``So, note to self: make sure batteries are fresh. Ditto cellphones charged up,'' she added.

(Editing by Paul Thomasch and Philip Barbara)