A family of six comprising of an elderly couple and four great-grandchildren were found submerged in a bayou after their van was swept away by Hurricane Harvey floodwaters in Houston. The six are among at least 21 people who have died since the storm hit Texas.

"We have a total confirmed six dead at the scene," Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said after the van was recovered.

"They are devastated," Gonzalez said of the victims' family members, according to NBC News. "Our worst fears have been realised."

The recovery of the van and the six bodies ended three anxiety-filled days for the Saldivar family. The family had given up any hope that the six would be found alive but desperately wanted to recover the bodies, NBC News reported.

The fatal incident occurred Sunday (27 August) when the family was trying to move to dry ground. Sammy Saldivar was driving his parents, 84-year-old Manuel and 81-year-old Belia, both Alzheimer's patients, and the great-grandchildren, ranging in ages 6 to 16.

Saldivar crossed a bridge over the flooded bayou when the road caved and the van was sucked into the rapidly moving water. Relatives said he managed to extricate himself from his seat belt and escape the sinking vehicle. As he grabbed hold of a tree branch, he urged his relatives to try to escape.

Hurricane Harvey
A rescue boat evacuates people from the rising waters of Buffalo Bayou following Hurricane Harvey in a neighborhood west of Houston, Texas, 30 August 2017 REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

"He could hear the kids screaming and crying, trying to get out of the van," his brother, Ricardo Saldivar, told NBC News. "He said, 'Climb to the top, go out the back door,'" he said. "But [with] the van pointed straight down, they couldn't climb up the van, much less open the door.

"He just seen the van go under the water."

Sammy was found about an hour later by deputies and rescued. But police said the van was at least 4ft under water and no one could be saved. The sheriff said they were unable to reach the van Monday (28 August) or Tuesday (29 August) as the water was too high.

Family members went out on Wednesday (30 August) and found the van still partially submerged against a muddy embankment. At first, police could only see the bodies of the elderly couple, but they later found the children: Daisy, 6; Xavier, 8; Dominic, 15; and Devy, 16.

Hurricane Harvey
Residents wade through flood waters on Beaumont Place, Houston Jonathan Bachman/Reuters

Death toll rising

According to the Associated Press, the number of confirmed deaths linked to Hurricane Harvey is 21, but authorities are investigating another 17 deaths to determine whether they are related to the storm.

Many fear that additional bodies will be found once the floodwaters begin receding. Among the dead was a woman whose three-year-old toddler was found clinging to her body. Police said the woman's action likely saved the young girl's life.

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Texas Governor Greg Abbot said that 32,000 people were in shelters and that 30,000 shelter beds were available.

According to the New York Times, FEMA officials said 230 shelters were operating in Texas and 1,800 people had been moved from shelters to hotels and motels. FEMA has supplied 5m meals to evacuees and 210,000 have registered with the agency for assistance, Abbot said.

The governor said National Guard has conducted 8,500 rescues since the storm began, with local law enforcement doing about the same number. Around 24,000 National Guard troops will deploy to Texas for disaster recovery, he added.

The storm, which is dumping heavy rains along the Texas-Louisiana border, is expected to move further into Louisiana before attacking Mississippi on Thursday (31 August). The storm has weakened a bit, with winds falling to from 45mph to 40mph, according to the AP.