SURF CITY, N.J. - It could be worse than a summer of cloudy days and record-high gas prices for this tiny Long Beach Island town.

The discovery of more than 1,000 unexploded World War I-era munitions in newly placed sand on the beach just weeks before the start of the summer season has triggered a public-relations nightmare that no one saw coming.

And no one is sure how to deal with it.

"It's kind of surreal to think about this happening here," said Joe Muzzillo, whose Surf City beachwear store, Exit 63 Wearhouse, is turning out T-shirts with such quips as "Surf City - Our Beaches Will Blow You Away" and "I Got Bombed on LBI."

"We're constantly tuned in to the Weather Channel and the gas prices trying to predict what kind of summer it's going to be, and then this comes out of left field," Muzzillo said. "I'm just trying to make the best of it."

In March, just as the Army Corps of Engineers was finishing Surf City's section of a $70 million project to replenish the dwindling strands on popular but skinny Long Beach Island, a resident using a metal detector on the beach at Seventh Street came across what looked like an antique grenade.

More and more devices turned up in the next nine weeks as an Army Corps subcontractor made hundreds of sweeps of a 1.4-mile stretch where about 500,000 cubic yards of sand had been dumped.

Working around the clock, the crew has uncovered nearly 1,100 rusty devices - mostly antiaircraft shells about four inches in diameter and eight inches long.

Officials figure the munitions were dumped offshore sometime before 1973, when Congress made such actions illegal.

Although some contained small amounts of gunpowder, just how much of a hazard they posed after lying in saltwater for decades is unclear, said Keith Watson, project manager for the Philadelphia office of the Army Corps.

The munitions ended up spread across the beaches after a hydraulic dredge sucked them up from the ocean floor 21/2 miles offshore at the "borrow site" the Army Corps used as its source of sand, Watson said.

Through silt analysis and other studies, the borrow site was cleared during preliminary tests, and the military did not list it as a dumping site, he said.

More munitions might lurk beneath the surface because the new sand is as deep as eight feet in some places and the equipment can detect only three feet down, officials said.

For now, the beaches are closed, surrounded with miles of plastic orange fencing and posted with signs saying: "Danger - Unexploded Ordnance Found."

Surf City Mayor Leonard T. Connors has pledged that the beaches will be open by Memorial Day, and the Borough Council has been debating an ordinance that would prohibit beachgoers from digging deeper than a couple of inches when they build sand castles this summer.

The beaches are the economic generators in small Shore towns such as Surf City, so the stakes are high for local leaders.

Lauren Mikesell, an 18-year-old Surf City resident, isn't taking any chances. Mikesell, who spent the last two summers waitressing in local restaurants, has taken a summer job on the mainland in Manahawkin.

"I need that money for school," she said. "If the beaches don't open, nobody will come. It'll be disaster for any businesses on the island, and I don't want to be working there if it is."

Nary a hint appears on any Web sites sponsored by area chambers of commerce or local real estate agencies to let potential visitors know about any restrictions on the beaches. According to real estate agents, the munitions discovery hasn't affected rental numbers for the coming season.

One marketing expert said local officials had to handle the munitions problem gingerly.

"This is a tricky one, because you don't want to wake up a sleeping giant among the people who may not have heard anything about this and alarm them, but at the same time local officials need to make sure the public is informed about what is going on," said Jared Scott, founding partner in Stick & Move, a Philadelphia marketing agency that last year helped spearhead a $1 million tourism campaign for the now defunct Jersey Shore Alliance.

Scott said that while Muzzillo had taken the right tack with his darkly humored T-shirts, officials should not run from the issue.

"They need to be proactive on this, putting up Web sites to keep the public informed if they want more information, showing that steps have been taken to make the beaches safe," Scott said.

But others simply don't want to talk about it.

"I think the media is making more out of this than is necessary," said Sam Simons, a Manhattan real estate agent who owns six rental properties on Long Beach Island - some going for as much as $7,000 a week.

"It's an unfortunate circumstance that hopefully will not drive too many people away," Simons said as he readied his properties for the season.

Elizabeth Wilson, who winters in Naples, Fla., and spends every spring and summer in Surf City, said she was disappointed when she arrived in April and found the beaches closed.

"I would have stayed in Florida if I knew the beach was closed here," Wilson said. "I like to run on the beach every day, and now I can't."

As soon as the beach is reopened, she said, she'll be back on the sand with no fear.

"If those things were going to go off, they would have done so by now," Wilson said. "They traveled a long distance from the water, up the pipe to the beach. I don't think anything's going to happen."

Devon Jones said she'd be back, too, with her two children in tow.

"I can't wait," said Jones, of Manahawkin, who has been going to Surf City since childhood. "If they say it's safe, it'll be safe. I don't think they would take that risk."

The Army Corps said it was doing its part to make sure the beaches were ready for Memorial Day weekend.

"We will certainly have our sweeps completed and the entire beach technologically clear," Watson said. "From there, it will be up to local officials how they go about reopening the beaches."

Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-823-9629 or jurgo@phillynews.com.